Facebook slurps up ex DARPA techie for its F8 skunkworks

Free content ad network plans to copy Google's success too

Facebook has snatched an ex-Google exec and former chief of the US government’s DARPA boffinry branch to lead a new research facility.

Regina Dugan is to lead Building 8, a research lab running special projects that will extend the social network’s role into the broader technology field.

The remit of both Dugan and Building 8 is the development of hardware products.

Dugan has been brought on to bring what Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer called “DARPA-style breakthrough development” to the company’s mission and ten year roadmap.

“This method is characterized by aggressive, fixed timelines, extensive use of partnerships with universities, small and large businesses and clear objectives for shipping products at scale,” the pair wrote in a jointly bylined Facebook post.

Dugan posted on Facebook she was sad to leave the “pirates” of Google’s ATAP – a place where efforts faced intense “challenges that might have broken lesser teams.”

However, she added: “Building 8 is an opportunity to do what I love most... tech infused with a sense of our humanity. Audacious science delivered at scale in products that feel almost magic. A little badass. And beautiful. There is much to build at Facebook… and the mission is human… compelling.”

Before Facebook, Dugan was Google’s head of Advanced Technologies and Project (ATAP) group – the unit she created at Google’s Motorola Mobility unit. Dugan’s contacts in, and ability to forge, links across academia, business and government to land blue-sky thinkers, will be what Facebook values the most.

The four-year-old Google ATAP has developed Project Tango, which lets smartphones and tablets detect their position using GPS. Its other efforts include Project Ara, for customizable modular smart phones, Soli gesture recognition and Jacquard; developing smart fabric by putting sensors in clothing.

ATAP projects differ from Google X, which was responsible for self-driving cars and for Glass, in that they are short – just two years in length. You might call it Agile for special projects.

Facebook might be pushing hard on AI and VR, but these ideas will remain just that – ideas, unless there’s somebody driving the development of an ecosystem of partners outside the firm. That would be an ecosystem of suppliers, designers, researchers, manufacturers and those in other fields.

Dugan's recent past fits admirably with Facebook’s two top projects in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, pushed heavily at its F8 conference this week.

Facebook, however, has already been working on hardware: buying Oculus Rift, open-sourcing its data centre hardware designs and, this week, unveiling a video camera capable of capturing 360-degree video images.

Dugan joined Google in 2012 from DARPA, the boffinry branch of the US Department of Defense responsible for harnessing emerging technologies. As DARPA’s first woman director, appointed in 2009, she oversaw initiatives in cyber security, social media and advanced manufacturing.

Other projects from the DARPA files include plans for a March-20 hypersonic rocket plane this year, interstellar starships by 2111 and robots, in general. ®

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