The CIA's Original Headquarters Building in Langley, Va.

Oct 05 2020

CIA Unveils Lab to Focus on In-House Technology Innovation

The new lab will seek to develop new technologies in the fields of artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum computing, wireless networking and more.

During the CIA’s long history, the spy agency has helped develop the lithium-ion batteries used in laptops and smartphones and also advanced drone technology. Now, the agency is seeking to develop its own in-house research and development arm via its first federal lab.

Late last month, the CIA announced CIA Labs as a chartered member of the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer to serve as a research partner for other federal labs, academia and industry. It also will enable officers to obtain patents and licenses — and to make a limited amount of money from the intellectual property they develop while working at the agency.

In its mission statement, CIA Labs says it will conduct “multidisciplinary research, development, testing, and engineering to address new challenges; adapt, improve, or accelerate the production of existing solutions; and solve persistent scientific and technological problems in new ways.”

The research areas the lab will focus on will include a wide range of technologies, ranging from advanced materials and manufacturing to artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics; bioscience and biotechnology; distributed ledger/blockchain-enabled technologies; virtual and augmented reality; high performance and quantum computing; future wireless and telecommunications technologies; and robotic, autonomous and human interface systems.

“This is helping maintain U.S. dominance, particularly from a technological perspective,” Dawn Meyerriecks , head of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, tells MIT Technology Review. “That’s really critical for national and economic security. It also democratizes the technology by making it available to the planet in a way that allows the level of the water to rise for all.”

CIA Seeks to Accelerate Technology Innovation

Long before the CIA launched the new lab, it was focused on driving innovation. The agency sponsors its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel. It also has the Directorate of Digital Innovation, charged with accelerating innovation across the agency’s mission activities “with cutting-edge digital and cyber tradecraft and IT infrastructure.”

The agency has been working in recent years to get innovations to scale and become real-world tools. “We also have Digital Futures, which is another organization within DDI,” CIA CIO Juliane Gallina told FedTech earlier this year. “At first, when it was establishing presence, it was very industry-facing, engaging with the whole industry, not just small startups where you conventionally think innovation happens.”

“What I’ve seen in their evolution, which is really cool, is a little bit more of a focus on this idea of ‘crossing the chasm’ — where colloquially, in technology, we say that it’s really hard to get from prototype to production because you have to cross that chasm,” Gallina added. “It’s difficult to get adoption sometimes, but they’ve been thinking very hard about how you land the enterprise processes and the right people and skills to make sure that tech transfer happens.”

The new lab appears to be another step in that direction. It also encourages CIA personnel to come up with technologies that can be used in real-world applications.

As MIT Technology Review reports, “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 $150,000 per year.”

In a speech in September at the Intelligence and National Security Summit, Meyerriecks noted that the CIA holds intellectual property in a few areas that could “change the conversation” around some emerging technologies, C4ISRNET reports.

Those include 5G, battery technology, AR and VR, AI and machine learning, computation, geospatial information representation, navigation, and analytics.

“It’s an endless list that we collectively own, but the world desperately needs,” Meyerriecks said, according to C4ISRNET. “And if your attitude is ‘I will get this to production and then I will wait for the next procurement opportunity,’ then we are collectively part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

One of the areas the CIA apparently hopes to move technology forward is in edge computing. According to MIT Technology Review, Meyerriecks says the CIA is inundated with data from sensors. CIA officers want to be able to enhance the computational power of small, low-power sensors so that data sorting can be done on the device without it being sent back to a central server.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out why an IT reference architecture model gives intelligence agencies flexibility.

CIA/Wikimedia Commons