The company which built the first ever internet nodes back in the 1960s – and which gave the world the "@" symbol in email, among other things – has been hired by the US intelligence community to work on technology which could mimic "the brain's ability to make sense of large amounts of haphazard, partial information".
Back in the late 1960s, Boston-based BBN technologies was hired by the US military Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed DARPA) to develop the first nodes of the ARPAnet, which later became the internet we all know and love. DARPA's various successes for the military over the decades since have inspired the CIA and allied US intelligence agencies to start up their own version of the famous bureau, dubbed the Intelligence Advanced Research projects Agency (IARPA).
Now, BBN – these days owned by US arms giant Raytheon – says it has won a $3m deal from IARPA to "explore how the brain processes massive amounts of fragmented data". The funding comes from IARPA's backronym-tastic Integrated Cognitive-Neuroscience Architectures for Understanding Sensemaking (ICARUS) programme.
Like its military counterpart, IARPA focuses on high-risk research: that is, on research which is unlikely to deliver anything (and if it does, as in the case of the internet, what it delivers may be something quite other than what was expected). Thus there's no great likelihood that we'll see brain-like computers able to interpret information as well as a human can in a few years as a result of yesterday's deal.
If we do, though, BBN believes that the new gear will help the US spooks with various tasks they struggle to achieve today – in particular that of getting useful intelligence out of huge video files delivered by various forms of overhead surveillance. ®