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'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

'The Department of Mad Scientists'
Author Michael Belfiore
Author Michael Belfiore

If, by some strange coincidence, you happen to be reading this sentence on the Internet, you can thank a small, somewhat secretive division of the Pentagon called DARPA. For 50 years, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has helped create innovations in technology that match the wildest dreams of science's top minds.

As it goes with such advanced research divisions of the government, it was also off limits to reporters until Michael Belfiore managed to get behind DARPA's doors. Belfiore has a new book called The Department of Mad Scientists.

Belfiore tells Guy Raz that DARPA was launched in 1958, in the aftermath of the Soviet launch of Sputnik. He says the Eisenhower administration originally wanted to create a large bureaucratic institution — something like what NASA eventually became — but wanted something they could put into effect much faster.

"The idea was to get a bunch of people in a room and get them cooking up ideas for defeating the Soviets in space," Belfiore says.

When NASA took over the space race, ARPA — the "D" wasn't added until 1972 — turned its focus to areas like information technology. ARPA invented the precursor to the Internet and worked on speech recognition techonology, GPS, and lasers.

At least, they worked on the concepts. "They don't have any of their own laboratories. They just have people coming up with the ideas," Belfiore says. "Then they go out into the field and they find people at universities, at private companies who can actually put those ideas together."

In 2007, Belfiore witnessed the fruits of DARPA's outsourced inventive streak, a race between cars that drove through city streets, stopping at street signs, signaling turns, and staying within the speed limit, all without human drivers behind the wheel.

"The idea is that they wanted to develop cars that could drive themselves through war zones so we don't have human drivers at risk," Belfiore says.

Competitors included MIT and Cornell as well as General Motors and Volkswagen. DARPA's arrangement with those auto companies means that some of the technology they developed might have already made its way into your driveway.

The institutions they hire "have the right to develop these things on their own and market them to the public," Belfiore says.

"You can have a car that can sense an impending collision and warn a driver of it. Or perhaps even actually automatically swerve your vehicle away from a potential accident," Belfiore says.

As befits a shadowy government agency, not everything DARPA invents is quite so cuddly. In fact, Belfiore says he's sure that some of the work they do is "quite nasty." He can't be certain, he says, because "about 50 percent, I'm told, of what DARPA is doing is off limits to any outsider."

But Belfiore got just a glimpse of some of the potentially "nasty" technology while he was inside DARPA's labs. "They're working on bullets that can guide themselves," Belfiore says. Also in the works — robotized insects that could be used as tiny unmanned vehicles.

"They have a philosophy that unless something is so out there that a lot of people think it's impossible, it's probably not worth working on as a project," Belfiore says.

But DARPA's mission isn't science fiction. The way Belfiore sees it, the agency is needed as much today as it was in the '50s.

"This is a time, I think, that we're living in that's analogous to that time in the late '50s when we perceived that threat from the Soviets, that threat from outer space. We're facing global warming, we're facing energy reserves that are controlled by hostile countries," Belfiore says. "These are the sorts of problems that DARPA is working on."

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