Monday, October 17, 2011

Gadgets the Pentagon Made — From the Microwave to the New iPhone | Danger Room

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Darpa Funds The Mouse, Hypertext, Even Computer Windows

The cool voice assistant that runs on the iPhone 4S? Years ago, someone thought what Apple calls Siri would be a valuable tool for the military. Come to think of it, most of the technology we use — whether to cook our food, figure out directions, or gawk at adorable pictures of animals — was in some way designed to help, however tangentially, America go to war.

Armchair sociologists like to ponder the distance between military and civilian life. In the tech world, at least, they're not so far apart. Innovations that began with the U.S.' well-funded defense establishment almost always filter down into commercial, mundane usage. Sometimes in unexpected ways. Here are some of our favorite examples. Siri, can you think of some more?

Darpa Funds the Mouse, Hypertext, Even Computer Windows

Just think: If Doug Engelbart hadn't had a trippy vision while driving to his job at NASA, we might be living in a very different world. Engelbart had a waking dream of passageways to a networked world, powered by cathode ray tubes, where communications and organization became far more efficient than in augmentation-free reality.

Skip ahead a few years, and Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center played around with all kinds of weird interfaces for human-machine collaboration. One of them was a weird wooden box that helped you select different bits of text on a screen, the better to enter a command. Voila: the first mouse.

That wasn't the end. Engelbart came up with the hypertext language. His idea for organizing computer screens through virtual windows gave us an intuitive way to systemize all the information computers provide — and something to do after pointing a mouse at something.

Where'd Engelbart get these ideas? His time in the Navy helped. While reading an article in the Atlantic by legendary scientist Vannevar Bush at a Red Cross library, Engelbart was turned on to the idea of an automated library system. That influenced his seminal 1962 article "Augmenting Human Intellect." The seed money for his projects came from an obscure military arm, the Advanced Research Projects Agency — later to become the blue-sky research organ known as Darpa.

One of the places Engelbart spent ARPA's money: his lab at Stanford, which became the Stanford Research Institute — and later SRI International. In 2008, SRI spun off a commercial firm called Siri Inc., which Apple purchased a few years later. The fruits of that collaboration: the Siri voice-activated data assistant on the next-gen iPhone.

Photo: Darpa

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