by Joshuah Bearman

The Slash X Café was full of people in matching tracksuits ordering burgers for breakfast. It wasn’t yet 9 a.m., and the kitchen window was filling with baskets. “Brian, your burger’s ready!” the older and less toothed of the two waitresses announced. The Slash X was the only resource for refreshments on this patch of desert near Barstow—aka the ’stow—and with the mercury already approaching 90, refreshments were in order. It did not, however, feel strange to settle down on a barstool and order up a Sierra Nevada and steak fries at that hour, because in a sense it was lunchtime: like everyone else, I had been awake since three, standing on the wide floor of Stoddard Valley waiting for the start of an event called the Grand Challenge, a Defense Department–sponsored cannonball run of robotic vehicles that carried a first-place prize of a million dollars. Yes: $1,000,000—a sum, the race’s promoters hoped, that would generate enough enthusiasm to help kick-start the long march to true “autonomous ground vehicle technology,” meaning robots in the service of the military. At the race’s starting line, a troubled robot named DAVID in pole position twelve had promptly flipped. With the safety team disabling DAVID an impromptu intermission arose, creating the subsequent mob in the Slash X. There were team members (in the matching tracksuits), press (in tiny orange paper vests), military men (in fatigues), and spectators (in all manner of shapeless contemporary American drab). An announcement said it would be a while before the next bot was on the line. DAVID’s indo was bottlenecking the Grand Challenge and the Slash X kitchen alike. “Brian,” the waitress called out in frustration, “this here burger’s turnin’ cold!

The Grand Challenge was created by an organization called DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.[1] DARPA is the locus of R&D at the Defense Department. It spends several billion dollars a year, initiating military projects with names like Hummingbird Warrior as well as funding basic university science research with the potential for future military application.

DARPA has eight departments. The Tactical Technology Office is where the Grand Challenge fits in. There was a lot of news about the Grand Challenge because, atypically, DARPA promoted it heavily. They were hoping for some ascending karma in the firmament of public relations after another department, the former Information Awareness Office (IAO), made some notorious headlines last summer. That was when Retired Admiral John Poindexter, the onetime convicted coconspirator of Oliver North in the Iran-Contra Affair whom Rumsfeld resurrected to be the head of the IAO, let slip that his group—which featured as its logo the classically reassuring pyramid with an eyeball apex out of which shone a spooky light—was working on something called FutureMap, a system intended to bring “market-based prediction methods to security analysis.” Part of the Total Information Awareness program,[2] FutureMAP was essentially a futures market in terrorism; participants would bet on the likelihood of specific attacks in specific places, and the resulting market shifts would then be used for intelligence. Despite that FutureMap is actually an ingenious scheme, and probably one of IAO’s better ideas, public reaction was swift and final. Poindexter got the boot; the IAO got a new name; and FutureMap put DARPA in the pages of USA Today and the like, where there was a lingering wave of questions about the military and their well-funded mad scientists and just why is it that the government is so drawn to the image of eyeballs atop pyramids.

After that, DARPA retooled the Grand Challenge as a family-friendly media event. “This is gonna be fun!” was the new attitude, because who doesn’t like robots? Whereas DARPA had been cagey about details earlier in the summer, they were now sending out regular updates: names and emails for team leaders; driving directions to the race site; web addresses for photos and live tracking; press releases with three media contacts at the top, cell-phone numbers included. They erected stands for spectators. Not only were there press conferences, the press conferences were now compulsory, DARPA said. I made the mistake of believing this, and duly showed up on race day in the press tent at T-minus 90 minutes in order to hear DARPA people tell us what they’d already told us with multiple press kits. A throng of similarly credulous journalists listened in, while outside, the grounds of the staging area filled with hundreds of team members, enthusiasts of various kinds, and a growing audience. “This is very exciting for all of us,” said the guy at the front of the tent towards the end of the briefing. “What you will see here today are the most advanced machines ever built in the way of robotic vehicles.”

  1. Cf. “The Uninhabited United States Air Force,” the Believer, August 2003.
  2. Cf. “Interview with Usama Fayyad,” the Believer, September 2003.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Joshuah Bearman is a writer and, along with his girlfriend, a jewelry proprieter. He lives in Hollywood, where he is a contributor to the LA Weekly and other publications.

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