US funding for key IT research programs could be slashed

U.S. President Barack Obama is proposing a DARPA budget of $2.9 billion for 2015, but less money is going to ICT and electronics research

While the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency may get more money in 2015 to study sensors and robots for use in warfare, the hot area of cognitive computing research could lose out.

The money assigned to DARPA's top IT research programs has been slashed in U.S. President Barack Obama's 2015 budget proposal, with more money being directed to weapons and warfare research. The budget, if passed, could have a negative impact on research into cognitive computing systems, chip manufacturing, quantum computing, software and materials.

The White House has requested a budget of $2.9 billion for fiscal 2015 to be assigned to DARPA, which is run by the U.S. Department of Defense. The budget request is a minuscule part of a larger $4 trillion budget proposed by Obama. The proposal is a slight increase from the $2.79 billion assigned to DARPA as part of the fiscal 2014 budget.

DARPA funds internal research and also distributes money among universities and companies for basic and applied research. DARPA develops advanced technology for use by the military, but has also driven innovations in IT. DARPA made key contributions to the development of the Internet worldwide.

The budget requested for DARPA's Information and Communications Technology program -- which focuses on software technology for data-intensive computing -- is $334 million, down from $399.6 million in the previous year. The ICT program leads to "commercially viable, sustainable computing systems for a broad spectrum of scientific and engineering applications," DARPA said in a breakdown of the budget proposal.

Also down was the budget for electronics technology, which fell to $179.2 million from $233.47 million. The electronics technology research focuses on research around processing concepts, circuitry, electronic systems and optoelectronic devices, according to DARPA.

A casualty of the proposed budget is DARPA's Cognitive Computing Systems research program, which has no budget this year compared to roughly $16 million last year. The Cognitive Computing Systems program is at the center of an effort to create brain-like chips for cognitive computing systems, and software with the ability to adapt to neural networks. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Stanford University and HRL Laboratories have been beneficiaries of the research program. The development of such chips is also funded through DARPA's biological and materials program, which is also receiving less funding as part of the 2015 proposal.

DARPA also is reducing the money assigned to research new materials and manufacturing technologies that could help take chips to the nanoscale level. In a speech last year, Robert Colwell, director of the Microsystems Technology Office at DARPA, said more research was needed on future chip technologies. Early last year, DARPA and Semiconductor Research Corp. -- a research consortium backed by IBM, Intel, Micron, Globalfoundries and Texas Instruments -- assigned $194 million in chip research to universities.

More money is being assigned to warfare related research. The single largest budget of $386.9 million is being assigned to the network-centric warfare technology program, which focuses on the development of networking, robotics and other technology in naval systems to minimize damage and increase battlefield efficiency. Robots from companies like iRobot are already being used by the U.S. military in the battlefield.

The sensor technology program also received a funding boost with a budget of $312.8 million, with research focused on technology that could be used in drones. Last year the program had funding of $276.4 million.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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