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Breaking Into The 'Department Of Mad Scientists'


This is Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, a look inside one of the most ambitious science and technology organizations no one really ever talks much about, DARPA. That's shorthand for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency is responsible for some of the most cutting-edge, game-changing technologies like the Internet. DARPA scientists are supposed to think just beyond what's currently possible and then get there before anybody else does. But they do it in a very quiet way. My guest Michael Belfiore got inside the organization for a firsthand look at some of the projects going on at DARPA. And he wrote a book about what he saw. He's here to talk about it. He's author of "The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs." He's here with us. Thanks for talking with us today, Michael.

MICHAEL BELFIORE: Thanks for having me. Happy new year.

FLATOW: Happy new year to you. If it's so top secret, how could you find out what's going on in there?

BELFIORE: Well, that's certainly what makes DARPA unique. You see, they don't keep everything within their walls, much as they sometimes might like to. The way they work is, they don't have their own labs so they have to outsource everything. And that's partly how they got things done really quickly and get a lot of innovative projects going, but also leaves the door open for someone like me who wants to take a peek at what's going on. So it may be hard to get inside the office building where the ideas are hatched, which I did actually manage to do, but I spent most of my time out in the field at the universities and private companies that are working on these projects. They're looking for the far side, they call it. And Tony Tether, who is the director of DARPA while I was writing this book, he told me that one of the qualifications for the job as he saw it was that he was a former Fuller Brush man. And that, you know, here he was showing up at the door of military commanders - this is a military organization - so they're trying to basically sell the military on these new capabilities they're developing. And they're showing up with all these new gadgets and capabilities, much like someone banging on your door selling brushes back in the day and saying, hey, you need this - to people who may not necessarily think they do need that. So he saw that as a major part of his job.

FLATOW: Why do you call them mad scientists?

BELFIORE: Well they're mad because they think anyone who offers something truly innovative, something that's never been done before, has to be slightly mad, slightly out of step with the people around them. And some might offer that that's a requirement, someone like Edison or, you know, people like this creating entirely new things that no one's conceived of, has got to be somewhat mad.

FLATOW: But we need people like this. I mean, if you look at other organizations, like, how would NASA, for example, work differently than DARPA would?

BELFIORE: That's a good point of comparison, 'cause DARPA was created at the same time NASA was, for the same reason. It was in response to Sputnik, the launch of the first satellite by the Soviet Union back in 1957. And the Eisenhower administration saw this as a real challenge to the United States. A lot of scientists were worried that we were falling behind, so Eisenhower and his team said, well let's do something fast. Let's reassure the public, first of all, that we are not falling behind and let's make sure we really don't get caught with our pants down again. So let's create this agency - it was called ARPA then - that's going to prevent technological surprise. Now, that's been their mission ever since. They added the D for defense in the early '70s, but it's always been part of the Defense Department. And that was their mission, prevent technological surprise. And at the time, that was just in space 'cause that was where the threat came from - the perceived threat. And in the meantime though, there was much bigger organization kind of coalescing called - that was to be called NASA - that got started later in 1958. That essentially took over ARPA's mission - became the space agency. So ARPA was the first space agency, and NASA came along and took over the space mission and did things entirely differently. ARPA was created as a quick, sort of quick response. We're just going to get a bunch of, well, you know, mad scientists in an office building and get them to come up some with crazy ideas and then farm out those ideas to labs around the country. So we won't have to build new labs, we won't have to do anything like that. We'll just get those ideas out, get the funding out. Whereas NASA was an entirely different mold. It was, you know, let's create this huge infrastructure. Let's create these test stands and rocket centers and, you know, have them building things in-house, and they got the job done. They got people on the moon in 1969. Incidentally, the same year that DARPA created what became the Internet. But whereas NASA kind of, in my estimation, lost its footing after the moon landing - I mean, we beat the Soviets in space, we got the high ground, now what - NASA was left without an overriding mission. Well ARPA, since it didn't have this big bureaucracy and infrastructure holding it down, it could shift into other areas, which it did after NASA took the space mission and moved into information technology, and now they work in biomedicine and all kinds of different areas - robotics, artificial intelligence.

FLATOW: What's interesting about a lot of the research you talk about in the book, "The Department of Mad Scientists" - talking with Michael Belfiore - it's how you don't know where this research is going to head. They're in such basic research that the invention of the Internet - they didn't set out to invent the Internet, did they?

BELFIORE: It was one guy that originated - that's another thing about DARPA that makes it, I think, probably unique in the government - is the individual program managers and directors there have lots of autonomy about where things go. There's not a lot of forms to fill out. There's not a lot of layers of management to go through. So the Internet started out as this guy Bob Taylor - he's head of the information processing techniques office, which is still an office at DARPA - sitting in his office there in Washington and he sees - he's got a bunch of computer terminals, each one of which is linked to a different mainframe computer around the country. Every time he wants to use a different computer, he's got to go, you know, walk across the office and log into a different terminal. And he thought, well this is silly. Why can't I just have one terminal that I can log into any computer from? And so he went down the hall to head of DARPA and pitched it as a program. And the guy said, well that sounds pretty good. Here's a million bucks. And he went back to his office and looked at his watch and he said, wow, that took 20 minutes. And that's typical of how things get going over there. Someone comes up with an idea, pitches it, gets it funded, and that's what makes an exciting place to work for the people there.

FLATOW: And what do you say to people who will say, but yeah, but this is run by the Pentagon. These are all Defense Department - what do we get out of this as civilians?

BELFIORE: What we get out of it is, to me, it's fascinating. And this is why I wrote this book. I wanted to - you know, the more I learned about DARPA, sort of by osmosis on another project I was working on, the more I was fascinated by this idea that this Pentagon agency had funded so many of the technologies that we as civilians use everyday, such as the Internet and a lot of the technologies behind GPS, things like this. It turns out that because DARPA doesn't have its own labs and then - and that it has to outsource everything, the groups that it funds are then free to market the technology, at least the ones that aren't secret, as they see fit. In fact, DARPA prefers that they do that 'cause that means that they don't have to continue nurturing those technologies. Once they're proven to be effective or possible, then they can move on to the next impossible task. And instead of having to worry about, okay, let's, you know, keep these other projects going to the point where everyone can use them. No, no, no, we've already proven that's possible. We've proven that cars can drive themselves, that you can put a GPS into a size of a cigarette pack, or we can network computers. Now it's up to the people we funded to go see what they can do with that and hopefully bring it to a marketplace where it can be then just be brought on the open market.

FLATOW: Or create robotic artificial limbs for wounded soldiers.

BELFIORE: That's one of the projects, yeah, that I followed in the book. Can we build a limb that is basically indistinguishable from a natural arm? So if you're missing an arm, you get this new prosthetic that can sense and move and operate like a natural arm. And that's typically ambitious, and they call that DARPA-hard. Let's try something that just seems completely insane, totally, you know, crazy ambitious. And in that case, they didn't get there. They didn't quite get to that point, but they did get a lot of these technologies in motion for controlling a robot with mind power alone, for instance.

FLATOW: Yeah. How do they ensure that they keep getting new cutting-edge thoughts inside of DARPA?

BELFIORE: That's one of the challenges, and that's one of the reasons I was able to write this book, too, because they need to get the word out. They need to find people out there who've got these ideas, who want to pitch them to DARPA. Or come to work for DARPA as a program manager because DARPA program managers, they all leave. After two to six years, they're gone. Their expiration dates are printed on their ID badges. So they've got this turnover, 25 percent every single year.

FLATOW: And they also have a deadline, right?

BELFIORE: The deadline. Everyone comes in there. They've got this project. Often they're recruited because they've got some idea that's been, basically, festering or stewing within them for years. You know, people got these pet projects, they come into DARPA, they get them done. They hit the ground running. They know they got to leave within, you know, four years, six years, something like that. So emphasis is on getting that stuff done, getting out there, but also getting the new ideas in. So Tony Tether, who was the director of DARPA while I was writing this book, he sort of saw this book as an opportunity to get the word out. We need ideas. In fact, he would actually give out his personal e-mail address, you know, his DARPA e-mail address, saying if you've an idea, send it to me.

FLATOW: Yeah. So what is the budget for DARPA?

BELFIORE: It's only about $3 billion. So compared to the whole Defense Department, which is, you know, 500 or more billion, or NASA, which is around 16 billion, or something.

FLATOW: A couple of big bombers.

BELFIORE: Yeah, one and a half B-2 bombers. That's it. I think DARPA should be inspiring to anyone who wants to create innovative things, come up with new ideas, do things that really make a difference, with a relatively small amount of money and resources.

FLATOW: And what stuff do you think, percentage of stuff, that you actually saw going on? What couldn't you see that they wouldn't let you see inside of DARPA?

BELFIORE: I'm told I had access to about half of what they do. The other half is secret, and I talked to Tether about this. You know, why is this all secret? You know, why am I only seeing half of the iceberg? He said, well, you know, our mission is to prevent technological surprise. So one of the ways you do that is you get there first, and if you let the word out, then it's not a surprise anymore.

FLATOW: So we should assume that whenever we see something happening, or there's new technology or new ideas to combat terrorism, technology, medicine, life - that somewhere inside there, somebody's thinking about that.

BELFIORE: Yeah, and that to me is one of the great, inspiring things about this research I did and the people I met.

FLATOW: All right, Michael you're presenting it very well, yourself, the case for DARPA. So good luck to you. It's an interesting book. Michael Belfiore, author of "The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs." Thanks for joining us.

BELFIORE: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. We're going to take a break and when we come back, undersea explorer Robert Ballard. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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