'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years If you've used a GPS system — or if you happen to be using the Internet to read this — you can thank DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For 50 years, the smallish, somewhat secretive division of the Pentagon has been mostly off-limits to reporters. Now author Michael Belfiore has profiled the agency in a new book.
NPR logo

'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120400853/120438172" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

'Mad Scientists,' Building The Future For 50 Years

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120400853/120438172" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, Host:

Welcome.

MICHAEL BELFIORE: Hi, thank you.

RAZ: How did DARPA come about?

BELFIORE: 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.

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?

BELFIORE: 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.

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?

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.

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.

BELFIORE: 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: Michael Belfiore, thanks so much.

BELFIORE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.