In Stanford’s Hacking for Defense students build military tech

Stanford stays Silicon Valley’s singular establishment—the foundation of its vibrancy and hegemony. And due to Stanford Research Park, whose authentic tenants included Lockheed Martin and different protection contractors, it’s additionally a bodily reminder of the large function protection performed within the early lifetime of the Valley. Despite the fact that the {industry} round it has moved on to smartphones and social networks, a well-liked course on the college has made Stanford’s protection connection present once more.

In Hacking for Defense, students spend the semester in groups and are challenged to build tech merchandise that handle precise issues submitted by protection and intelligence company sponsors. Began in 2016 by historian and entrepreneur Steve Clean, the category was a federally sponsored program the next 12 months, funded by the Nationwide Defense Authorization Act. Now you can discover Hacking for Defense lessons following the Stanford mannequin at 55 U.S. universities. As of final spring, 2000 students had taken the H4D course.

Clean says that Americorps and the Peace Corps shouldn’t be the one choices for students concerned about public service; they need to have the ability to contribute their time and expertise to fixing tough defense- and intelligence-related challenges, too.


Learn extra: Silicon Valley needs to energy the U.S. warfare machine


Now, due to its Hacking for Defense class, Stanford is minting future startup founders and executives that would ultimately enlarge the tech {industry}’s presence within the nation’s protection industrial base. That is particularly related now that the character of warfare is altering. Now not are wars fought and gained merely on the power of massive weapons and brute drive: The deciding elements in fashionable warfare are extra numerous, spanning autonomous weapons, info warfare, bioweapons, and warfare in area.

Throughout Obama’s second time period, individuals within the Pentagon realized that Uncle Sam would wish the assistance of the nation’s greatest tech expertise to defend in opposition to issues like drone swarms, hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks, and disinformation campaigns. The Pentagon started sending individuals to Silicon Valley to make connections. In 2015 it arrange the Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View to seek out leading edge tech that could possibly be related to protection wants. At Stanford, it felt like historical past repeating itself. In the beginning of the Chilly Struggle, Stanford was thought of the premiere analysis establishment for creating protection expertise. In the Nineteen Fifties, Stanford science and engineering grads would go on to launch the Valley’s first silicon chip makers.

That legacy continues via Hacking for Defense. Sitting in on the Hacking for Defense class in spring 2021, which was nonetheless distant through Zoom, I used to be shocked by the seriousness of each the students and their tasks. I watched Group AngelComms current their progress making a small communications system that might assist in the rescue of downed pilots. Group Radicalization Inoculation described the teachings it discovered concerning the market-fit of its product—software program that lets the service branches monitor individuals inside their ranks with suspected ties to home terror teams. An all-female workforce of students, Versatile Fingerprints, reported on its prototype software program to speed up cybersecurity software program integration into DoD servers. That workforce is now pursuing VC funding.

H4D teacher Jeff Decker tells me 20 groups usually apply for admission to the H4D course, from which the educating workforce selects eight to 10. A 3rd of the students come to the course come from the engineering faculty, a 3rd from the enterprise graduate faculty, and a 3rd from finding out legislation, coverage, or worldwide relations, Decker says.

Every week, the groups name on no less than 10 finish customers inside the sponsor company and regularly evolve their product plan to raised match the company’s want. Most of the presenters I noticed weren’t even 20 years previous, but they spoke like veteran product managers. Clean’s most important suggestions to them was to decelerate: The students had been so immersed of their venture and market analysis that a lot of them raced via their displays.

Clean and his fellow instructors, which embody each different professors and defense-industry professionals, harassed that whereas product planning is necessary, students additionally should zero in on the correct of DoD funding sort and determine the champions and decision-makers inside the company that may push the contract via.

Nationwide, Hacking for Defense packages have birthed no less than 14 startup corporations. These embody the satellite tv for pc imagery firm Capella Space, versatile lithium-ion batteries developer Anthro Energy, and Lumineye, which develops radar techniques that will assist troopers see via partitions.

Group SilkNet constructed its product round this problem from the Military Analysis Lab: “Platoon Radio Management operators want efficient human-machine teaming for enhanced situational consciousness.” SilkNet developed a small “leave-behind” sensor set contained in a “sticker” that may detect individuals, autos, and electromagnetic alerts—all with out counting on a community connection.

The week earlier than the category, SilkNet had an necessary dialog with a procurement officer on the Particular Operations Command, or SOCOM. The officer mentioned SOCOM had been trying for the form of product the workforce had developed, that it “may and would” purchase it. However there was one caveat. The product needed to be totally developed and “prepared handy over.”

SilkNet wasn’t there but. Lots of prototyping and sensor integration wanted to be executed, most likely by engineers that the workforce would wish to rent. To make the product prepared for a possible purchaser like SOCOM, SilkNet is making use of to get a Small Enterprise Administration mortgage to fund its improvement for protection. This isn’t uncommon—the category academics encourage the groups to proceed engaged on their tasks after the category is over, and maybe discovered their very own startups.

The students within the Hacking for Defense class appeared free from the ethical quandaries of tech workers encountering protection work for the primary time at corporations like Google. They arrive with open eyes to unravel points which may have geopolitical significance.

“In case you’re an engineer or scientist, and also you wish to work on the hardest issues on the planet, belief me, [you’re] not working for Google,” Clean says, utilizing the corporate as shorthand for the mainstream tech {industry}. “Among the hardest issues are fixing actual AI, actual autonomy, actual no matter—issues to maintain the nation protected and safe.”