Spotlight | Irvine Sensors Corp.

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SAN FRANCISCO — After seeing HAL 9000, the fictional computer introduced in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” some people retained a lingering mistrust of autonomous computers. Not John Carson. The president and chief executive of Irvine Sensors Corp. has worked for decades to develop the types of sensors and processing networks that would enable computers to function independently.

“HAL was more than a Watson-type ’Jeopardy’ player,” Carson said. “HAL was aware, conscious. That’s the thing we are trying to achieve.”

For space applications, the benefits of a conscious computer would be enormous, Carson said. Instead of transmitting information through bandwidth-intensive imagery files, the computer could report its observations verbally.

“It’s very useful to have something able to report its observations verbally when it’s in a remote place and bandwidth is limited,” Carson said.

In addition, a computer that is aware or conscious could oversee spacecraft operations without waiting for instructions sent from a distant command post.


Irvine Sensors Corp. at a Glance

Location: Costa Mesa, Calif.

Top Official: John Carson, president and chief executive

Employees: 40

History: Irvine Sensors was established in 1974, disbanded in 2010 and re-established on Jan. 4, 2013.

Mission Statement: A sensor systems company dedicated to the creation of sentient machines.


Shortly after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, Carson began working for Baird-Atomic Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a subcontractor to Lockheed Aircraft Co. on the U.S. Air Force Missile Defense Alarm System, a constellation of satellites designed to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches. When a team led by TRW Inc. and Aerojet General Corp. defeated Lockheed and its partners in the subsequent competition to build Defense Support Program missile-warning satellites, Carson took a fresh look at the challenge of missile detection.

“I realized there ought to be a better way of extracting missile signatures from the sunlight-cloud background,” Carson said. “My eyes and brain can tell the missile from the reflections.”

That goal of mimicking human sensing and brainpower is a recurring theme in Carson’s career. In 1974, he formed Irvine Sensors Corp. in Costa Mesa, Calif. The company initially developed focal-plane technology based on human vision. That technology continues to have applications in space surveillance, Carson said.

To provide enough computing power to process data acquired by its imaging systems, Irvine Sensors developed three-dimensional integrated circuits, computer chips featuring multiple layers of electronic components. During the 1990s, those three-dimensional chips became a standard feature of space data recorders, including NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the U.S. government’s Landsat Earth imaging satellites. Irvine Sensors’ electronic components provided “faster processing speeds and lower power requirements” than conventional chip sets, according to a 1997 NASA publication highlighting the success of the technology, which was developed with Small Business Innovative Research grants.

In recent years, Irvine Sensors broadened its product line to include imaging lidars for space-based navigation and situational awareness as well as miniature gyroscopes and accelerometers. At the same time, the company became involved in Internet security.

As the firm’s Internet security work expanded, the focus of the company shifted from its traditional base in Costa Mesa to Richardson, Texas, where its computer security products were developed. “We were aimed at protecting users from malware and other dangerous things coming from the network,” Carson said. In 2010, Irvine Sensors was renamed ISC8.

Within two years, rapid expansion of ISC8’s Internet security business began to overshadow the firm’s space and military ventures. “We realized it was going to be difficult to operate these two wildly different business models under the same roof,” Carson said. “The military parts of the business began to seem like an orphan.”

To give that orphan a home, Irvine Sensors was reformed as a private company Jan. 4. On March 8, ISC8 halted operations in its Costa Mesa facilities. The following day, Irvine Sensors hired the same employees and resumed operations, Carson said.

Irvine Sensors will continue to develop active and passive situational awareness and navigation systems for spacecraft. Some of the firm’s miniature sensors and cameras originally designed for space-based applications also are being used in tactical missions. Imaging lidar technology designed to reveal targets through tree canopies, for example, has shown promise in autonomous vehicle navigation, Carson said.

“Through the space program, we were able to miniaturize the systems so they could be applied in the tactical arena,” he said.

The company also will continue to devise new ways to assemble integrated circuits. That technique has evolved to the point where entire computer systems are integrated in a cube. Increasing levels of integration help computers mimic the extensive processing power of the human brain. “Your brain has something like 100 billion neurons, and they are interconnected,” Carson said. “Each one talks to about 10,000 other ones. That’s hard to achieve in a computer.”

Nevertheless, it is that type of brain-like capability that Carson seeks. In the 1970s, Irvine Sensors called itself a vision systems company. Now it calls itself a sensor systems company. “If we are going to make HAL happen, we have to have the full repertoire of sensors, including motion, pressure, imagery and auditory,” Carson said. “We have got those pieces.”

Still, Irvine Sensors will not be able to develop autonomous computers on its own. The company is seeking to create partnerships with firms and organizations that share its goals. “Ten years ago when I talked about making a silicon brain, people would try to leave the room,” Carson said. “Now they are more likely to ask, ‘When?’”

Brain research is expanding. In January, the European Commission pledged 1 billion euros to a decade-long effort to use computers to simulate the work of the human brain. In February, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a billion-dollar program to create a comprehensive map of the brain. U.S. corporations, including International Business Machines Corp. and Google Corp., also are conducting extensive work in the field.

Irvine Sensors hopes to tap into that growing interest. “We are small but we are deep in expertise in this area,” Carson said.

With only 40 employees and $10 million to $15 million in annual revenue, Irvine Sensors is unlikely to lead efforts to develop autonomous computers.

“With this kind of a grand objective we are not going to make progress unless we are coupled to some big engines,” Carson said. “Those big engines on the other side won’t make as much progress if they don’t get the benefit of the innovation that comes from people like us.”