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The Military Invented the Internet. What Next?

The history of war and technological advance are inextricably linked. P.W. Singer is the author of Wired for War and an expert in military technology.

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Military technology has historically found new applications in civilian life. While wars are devastating to the civilians caught in the middle, they also push technological advancements that benefit civilians long after their conclusion, from Roman roads built to speed troop transit to the Internet, which was initially developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as ARPANET.

But not every transfer of military technology to the civilian sector goes smoothly or efficiently. Many are too costly or sophisticated for commercial application, and specific military requirements can impede viability for civilian use. Examples include nuclear power, developed from nuclear weapon research but which has struggled as a commercial industry, and supersonic aircraft, which are vital to the Air Force but never caught on commercially, largely due to their high price tag.

Increasingly, some experts say, the direction of transfer is reversing -- rather than the military providing spin-off technology for civilians, civilians are developing "spin-on" technology for the military. Development can also occur from both directions at once. In 1999, the Army created the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California to research artificial intelligence, graphics and virtual reality immersion. ICT has built on the technology developed for commercial video games and created immersive virtual reality training for U.S. troops. The same technology might later be used to create virtual training environments for civilian jobs. Coming full circle, ICT's Full Spectrum Warrior training video game became a hit when it was released commercially.

Scholar John A. Alic, in his book Beyond Spinoff, outlines the range of pathways for technology transfer:

Direct product conversion (true spinoff) Microwave oven CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
The government creates a market for a new technology by purchasing it at high prices eary in its development Supercomputers CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Concurrent development of civil and military applications of a common technology, which is mutually beneficial Jet engines, nuclear power CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Shared infrastructure for defense programs and emerging commercial industry Satellite communications CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Development of engineering techniques and tools to meet government needs NASA Structural Analysis (NASTRA) CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Dual-use technology developed from defense agency support of basic or generic research Artificial intelligence, lasers CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Reverse spinoff ("spin-on") from civil to military CMOS semiconductors developed in Japanese electronic wristwatches CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE
Military-funded technology demonstrations aim to stimulate demand by the military for technology not yet used in weapons systems Very-High-Speed Integrated Circuits (VHSIC) CLICK FOR AN EXAMPLE


posted February 2, 2010

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