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'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

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'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

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'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you're driving at the moment and you're using a GPS system for navigation, you can thank a small and somewhat secretive branch of the Pentagon. It's called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA for short. Now, aside from the GPS system, DARPA has, over the past 50 years, brought us things like the Internet, robotic arms, self-driving cars, and prototypes of supersonic spaceships.

Now, for most of those years, DARPA's been off-limits to reporters, but Michael Belfiore managed to get in and write about the agency. His new book is called "The Department of Mad Scientists." And Michael Belfiore joins me from New York.

Welcome.

Mr. MICHAEL BELFIORE (Author, "The Department of Mad Scientists"): Hi, thank you.

RAZ: How did DARPA come about?

Mr. BELFIORE: DARPA came about for the same reason that NASA did. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, caused a great amount of consternation at the Defense Department, as well as many other places in the United States, and it was felt very strongly we have to do something, that the Eisenhower administration ultimately had in mind a big, sprawling, well, what became a big bureaucracy, NASA, but they wanted to do something that would get into effect much faster.

So they came out with ARPA, it was called at the time, didn't have D for defense, but it's the same agency. The idea was to get a bunch of people in a room and get them cooking up ideas for defeating the Soviets in space.

NASA came along and, later in '58, took over the space mission. And so they moved into other areas, such as information technology.

RAZ: And eventually, as I mentioned earlier, scientists and researchers there went on to create what we now know as the Internet and things like GPS.

Mr. BELFIORE: That's right. They don't have any of their own laboratories. They just have people coming up with the ideas. These are PhDs, research scientists, as you mentioned, who just come up with the ideas. Then they go out into the field, and they find people at universities, at private companies, who can actually put those ideas together.

RAZ: I want to ask you about some of the gadgets and things you came across working on this book, things like self-driving cars. Do they work?

Mr.�BELFIORE: Self-driving cars do work, and this is, actually, I think a great success story for DARPA. The idea is they want to develop cars that can drive themselves through war zones so we don't have human drivers at risk. But this is part of what makes DARPA very interesting to me. They don't just own the technology after they create it. The institutions that they hire to do the work of creating things then have the right to go and develop these things on their own, for the most part, and to market them to the public.

So DARPA sponsored three auto races that were driven by self-driving cars, and the latest one was in 2007. I watched these cars drive through city streets, stop at stop signs, signal their turns, stay within the speed limit, very strange auto race. And these are starting to roll out, these technologies, in commercial vehicles, production vehicles.

So you don't have to go all the way to fully autonomous to get benefits. 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.

RAZ: So the technology is there already.

Mr.�BELFIORE: It's absolutely there, yeah.

RAZ: We've talked about things that are great and indispensable. But is there a dark side, in a sense, to some of the projects that have come out of DARPA or DARPA research?

Mr.�BELFIORE: Some of the works that DARPA is doing, I'm sure, is quite nasty. I was only allowed to see about half of what they do. So about 50 percent, I'm told, of what DARPA is doing is off limits to any outsider.

RAZ: I mean, but we can assume that there are certain projects and weapons that they might be working on that could be incredibly effective and then also destructive.

Mr.�BELFIORE: I got just a glimpse of some of that. They're working on bullets that can guide themselves, so sort of missile technology compressed into the size of a bullet. So you just sort of fire your weapon in the general direction of where you want it to go, and it guides itself. They're also working on robotizing insects. If you can implant very small electronics and control systems into insects, then you can use them as mini-UAVs, mini-unmanned vehicles.

RAZ: The title of your book is "The Department of Mad Scientists." So talk a little bit about the culture inside of DARPA.

Mr. BELFIORE: I called the book "The Department of Mad Scientists" because 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. And when Tony Tether came in to DARPA this was the director of DARPA who was there when I was writing the book, he's no longer there but when he came in, his mission as he saw it was to keep this culture where people ran around, as he said, with their hair on fire, meaning that they were thinking so hard about so many extraordinary things that their hair their brain overheated and their hair caught on fire.

And there is a bit of that feeling there. Of course, literally, they're not running around, you know, cackling and, you know, working with bubbling beakers of nauseous-smelling fumes. The idea is, though, that they are kind of hanging it out there. And this is a time, I think, that we're living in that's analogous to that time in the late '50s when we perceived this threat from the Soviets, this new threat from outer space.

We're facing global warming, we're facing energy reserves that are controlled by hostile countries, and I think you need to really push the envelope to solve this thing. And I think DARPA exemplifies the kind of, you know, let's-go-for-broke attitude that you don't see in a lot of places and I think we're going to need to see.

RAZ: That's Michael Belfiore. He's the author of "The Department of Mad Scientists," speaking with me from New York.

Michael Belfiore, thanks so much.

Mr.�BELFIORE: Thank you.

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