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Spy Agency Goes to Market

CIA focuses on AI, Quantum Computing; creates CIA Labs to earn from innovations following the NASA model

The US space agency has always been doing it: spinning off space technologies for everyday use. Even when the pandemic struck, it rose to the occasion and patented an improvement to an oxygen helmet used by astronauts in aid ofCOVID-19 patients. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of the Human Health and Performance Center, and the Technology Transfer Office combed through more than 2,000 technologies and software programs created over the last decade, looking for anything that might be useful in confronting the health crisis at hand.

The centre submitted a portfolio of 34 open source technologies to the United Nations. It is also helping a handful of groups update and manufacture a simple, human-powered ventilator originally designed for the space program. From memory foam to infant nutritional formulas, NASA has always come up with incredible innovations and eclectic products. Now CIA, the US spy agency, is also coming forward to allow its scientists to patent their innovations.

The CIA has always been researching, developing and realising cutting-edge technology. And now it wants to lead in fields like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. But, like all private corporate organisations, it is facing difficulties in recruiting the right kind of talent – more so because the spy agency cannot match mouth-watering salaries and brand attraction of Silicon Valley companies. To overcome this hurdle, CIA is allowing its officers to make money from the innovations that come from within the agency.

The agency’s solutions arm, CIA Labs, is set to recruit and retain technical talent by offering incentives to those who work there. Under the new initiative, CIA officers will be able for the first time to publicly file patents on the intellectual property they work on – and collect a portion of the profits. The agency gets to keep the rest of the amount. CIA is hoping that in this way its research and development could end up paying for itself. CIA Labs is looking at areas including artificial intelligence, data analytics, biotechnology, advanced materials, and high-performance quantum computing.

According to MIT Technology Review, it’s not the first time the agency has worked to commercialize technology it helped develop. The agency already sponsors its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, which has backed companies including Keyhole – the core technology that now drives Google Earth. In 2009, GainSpan Corp., a provider of low-power Wi-Fi semiconductor solutions, announced a strategic investment and technology development agreement with In-Q-Tel. GainSpan’s GS1010 chip was a highly integrated ultra-low-power Wi-Fi system-on-chip (SOC) that contained an 802.11 radio, media access controller (MAC), baseband processor, on-chip flash memory and SRAM, and an applications processor, all within a single package.

CIA also works closely with other arms of government, like the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, to do basic and expensive research where the private sector and academia often don’t or can’t deliver the goods. What CIA Labs aims to do differently is focus inward to attract – and then retain – more scientists and engineers and become a research partner to academia and industry.

Officers who develop new technologies at CIA Labs will be allowed to patent, license, and profit from their work, making 15% of the total income from the new invention with a cap of US$150,000 per year. That could double most agency salaries and make the work more competitive with Silicon Valley.

The agency is being overwhelmed by the amount of data it collects. Military and intelligence agencies around the world deal with a multitude of sensors like, for instance, the kind of tech found on drones. The CIA’s own sensors suck up incalculable mountains of data per second. Officers badly want to develop massive computational power within a relatively small, low-power sensor so the sorting can be done readily on the device itself, instead of being sent back to a central system.

Questions around how efforts to develop new technology should proceed in the new set-up, especially at an agency that has long been a fundamental but clandestine instrument of American power, will always be there. Some inventions have been non-controversial: especially during the Cold War, when the agency helped develop lithium-ion batteries – an innovative power source now widely used by the public. More recently, however, during the war on terrorism, the agency poured resources into advancing nascent drone technology that has made tech-enabled covert assassination a weapon of choice for every American president since 9/11 despite ongoing controversy over its potential illegality.

However, the way things are progressing, the day is not far when you might be able to purchase the latest “Bond Gadgets” off the shelf at your neighbourhood departmental store!

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