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NPR: ‘Mad Scientists,’ Building The Future For 50 Years

The Department of mad Scientists book coverAll Things Considered, November 15, 2009.

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.

Listen to the full interview on npr.org.

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