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But then his mentor asked him to attend a weekend conference at DARPA.

White knew it as the alphabet soup that spelled out Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's scientific-innovation department, the folks who brought you bionic exoskeletons, night vision, the M16, agent orange, GPS, stealth technology, weather satellites, and the Internet.

Many feared the situation was only going from bad to worse. He had earned academic pole position and had every expectation it would continue that way forever -- becoming a professor, building a lab, and sniping out white papers from a tenured ivory tower.

White was on their team but with a different role, as part of a nerd A-team in a classified DARPA program called Nexus 7. While this intel had been useful -- for, say, a targeted drone strike -- it mostly amounted to a data dump. Eventually, White would take these tools and the lessons he learned back home, where they would help revolutionize criminal investigative work, lend a hand to the journalists probing massive downloads like the Panama Papers, and shine light into the dark data realm where drugs, guns, and human beings are bought and sold, and where illicit bitcoin billions flow freely. I first met up with him this past November in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Seattle.

One day soon, they might even help pave the way for a more informed democracy. The lithe and darkly handsome Oklahoman I found in a bright blue Patagonia windbreaker by the front desk came across as something like a smaller, quieter hipster Carl Sagan.

He then surprised his family and himself by abandoning a pre-med track for electrical engineering.

He continued to surprise them with his facility for statistics and computer science, leading to a rarefied academic byway where machine learning and big data intersected with human language.

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