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The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs

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The first-ever inside look at DARPA?the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency?the maverick and controversial group whose futuristic work has had amazing civilian and military applications, from the Internet to GPS to driverless cars

America's greatest idea factory isn't Bell Labs, Silicon Valley, or MIT's Media Lab. It's the secretive, Pentagon-led agency known as DARPA. Founded by Eisenhower in response to Sputnik and the Soviet space program, DARPA mixes military officers ...

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The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs

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Overview

The first-ever inside look at DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the maverick and controversial group whose futuristic work has had amazing civilian and military applications, from the Internet to GPS to driverless cars

America's greatest idea factory isn't Bell Labs, Silicon Valley, or MIT's Media Lab. It's the secretive, Pentagon-led agency known as DARPA. Founded by Eisenhower in response to Sputnik and the Soviet space program, DARPA mixes military officers with sneaker-wearing scientists, seeking paradigm-shifting ideas in varied fields—from energy, robotics, and rockets to peopleless operating rooms, driverless cars, and planes that can fly halfway around the world in just hours. DARPA gave birth to the Internet, GPS, and mind-controlled robotic arms. Its geniuses define future technology for the military and the rest of us.

Michael Belfiore was given unprecedented access to write this first-ever popular account of DARPA. Visiting research sites across the country, he watched scientists in action and talked to the creative, fearlessly ambitious visionaries working for and with DARPA. Much of DARPA's work is classified, and this book is full of material that has barely been reported in the general media. In fact, DARPA estimates that only 2 percent of Americans know much of anything about the agency. This fascinating read demonstrates that DARPA isn't so much frightening as it is inspiring—it is our future.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Chances are, you don't anything about DARPA. DARPA wants to keep it that way. Ever since the days of the Eisenhower administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been operating as silently as possible. Begun as a response to Sputnik and the Cold War space race, the agency quickly branched out into energy, robotics, medicine, digital systems, vehicles, and much more. To develop their paradigm-making creations, DARPA's military hotshots pick the brains of what one observer described as "a veritable pantheon of geek gods." Michael Belfiore's The Department of Mad Scientists is our most advanced look yet at this secretive organization and the ways it is changing the way we all live.
Wired
“The commerical space race is heating up so fast you need a cheat sheet to keep track of all the billionaires and gamblers vying to be the first private entrepreneur to blast paying customers into orbit. [Belfiore] does a stellar job introducing an intriguing cast of characters.”
New Scientist
PRAISE FOR ROCKETEERS:“Belfiore excels at painting the world of NewSpace.”
Forbes
“That this story is still unfolding makes it especially exciting to read. These men are still in their workshops, tinkering their way into orbit.”
Popular Science
“A riveting, you-are-there account of how this ragtag collection of innovative thinkers, brave pilots, and bold visionaries is—right now—launching one of the most exciting new industries in history. Belfiore’s eloquent writing and exhaustive reporting really bring this mysterious, secretive world to life.”
Joe Pappalardo
If you want to know who really invented the Internet, or how brain waves can control robotic limbs, or how smart cars will become brilliant, this is your book. A must-read for those interested in invention in the modern age
Daniel H. Wilson
“A fascinating introduction to a veritable pantheon of geek gods who quietly shaped the face of modern technology.”
Robert Wallace
“An entertaining and information rich account of a small, efficient government agency that often turned 20th century sci-fi into 21st century technical reality. Belfiore will inspire young readers of a scientific bent to flood DARPA with their resumes.”
John Seely Brown
“An inspiring book about a crucial government agency (DARPA) with a driving spirit to do the impossible and to do it fast. We all need to read this book.”
Leonard Kleinrock
[DARPA’s] history has never been told at the level of detail and with such mastery as in this book by Michael Belfiore
Nathan Hughes
“An expansive look at one of the most important agencies not only in the Department of Defense, but in American history.”
Buzz Aldrin
“The privitization of space travel is an essential step toward realizing our cosmic destiny. In his engaging, highly readable ROCKETEERS, Michael Belfiore tells the fascinating story of the entrepreneurs who have already made it happen.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061577932
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/30/2009
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

The author of Rocketeers, Michael Belfiore has written about spaceflight and advanced technology for Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, New Scientist, Air & Space, Smithsonian, Financial Times, Wired.com, and other media outlets. He lives in Woodstock, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

The Department of Mad Scientists
How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs

An Arm and a Leg

The twin-engine riverine craft sliced through the Euphrates River a little more than one hundred miles as the crow flies northwest of Baghdad. Marines attached to the First Battalion, Twenty-third Marine Regiment, on board scanned the shoreline for signs of trouble. There, in a palm grove where the river made its first of many bends on its meandering way from the Haditha Dam to the Persian Gulf, another patrol had been attacked by insurgents just minutes earlier, and these marines aimed to weed them out. The marines were based at the dam itself. Their job was to protect the facility that generated fully a third of Iraq's power and to keep the stretch of river above and below the dam clear of insurgents. It was New Year's Day 2005.

The pilot beached the craft on the sandy bank of the river, and the marines jumped out, rifles at the ready, fanning out as they headed into the grove. The battalion's engineer, thirty-three-year-old reservist Captain Jon Kuniholm kept a wary eye out for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The insidious roadside bombs had been taking a heavy toll on U.S. soldiers in Iraq since the war began in 2003, and Kuniholm, with the help of his design start-up in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, had been building a robot that could move ahead of patrols and defuse bombs before they went off. Finding the carefully hidden bombs was an altogether different task, however. They could be concealed in anything, buried anywhere, triggered by anything from a cell phone to a garage door opener...like the one in the discarded olive oil can that Kuniholm had just enough time to register before it exploded.

The blast blew him off his feet. He lay dazed as insurgents opened up with automatic rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Kuniholm struggled to rise, searching for his M4 carbine, which, it turned out, had been torn in half by the explosion. And that's when he saw that his right forearm was dangling from the rest of his arm below the elbow on a strip of flesh only a couple of inches wide. "Fuck," he said. He got to his feet and, holding his severed right hand in his left, he ran to the cover of a nearby agricultural pump house, where he waited for the aid of a corpsman.

By the time the rest of the marines were able to beat an orderly retreat back to the patrol boat, one of their number had been fatally injured and several others had received lesser wounds. The day had not gone at all well for the patrol, and with the adrenaline rush that had been keeping him going wearing off, and grayness creeping in around the edges of his vision, Kuniholm told the others that he wasn't feeling so hot, and that if everyone was on board, they should get back to their base at the dam.

So began Kuniholm's long road home, from the base at Haditha to a field hospital at Al Asad, where surgeons finished the job the IED had started by taking off the rest of his forearm, then to Germany for more treatment, and finally home to North Carolina, for yet more surgery at Duke University Medical Center. From there it was on to the army's Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., to be fitted with a prosthetic arm. Actually, a trio of arms.

Like veterans since World War I, Kuniholm got a simple body-operated hook that he could open and close with the shrug of a shoulder or by extending the remaining portion of his arm. His movements pulled on a cable that was attached to the hook at one end and to the harness that held the prosthetic in place at the other. Great for everyday use, and durable, the thing lacked a certain panache, however...which Kuniholm's so-called myoelectric arm sought to provide. Heavy, relatively fragile, and limited in function, the myoelectric arm nevertheless represented the state-of-the-art in prosthetics. Electrodes embedded in a flexible liner worn beneath the arm's carbon-fiber sleeve picked up the electrical signals generated by the firing of the residual muscles in Kuniholm's forearm. Microchips translated those signals into commands to open and close the fingers of the prosthetic hand, which could take the form of either a hook or a cosmetically appealing but less functional hand. The device was more lifelike in appearance than the hook prosthesis, and was therefore less intimidating to able-bodied onlookers. But it couldn't be worn long without discomfort, it had to be kept from getting wet and dirty, and Kuniholm generally got less use out of it than the hook or the third arm, which was shorter than the other two and suitable for holding a pencil or pen. His experience with the myoelectric arm was typical. Michael Weisskopf, a journalist who lost his right arm below the elbow while riding with troops in Iraq in 2003, wrote of his struggles with his own myoeletric prosthetic arm in his book Blood Brothers.

If my former right hand floated lightly the fake one moved like a dumbbell...fat, clunky, and heavy. Its two and a half pounds were concentrated in the electronic hand...the place farthest from the half forearm. The prosthesis made my arm crook out like Popeye's; my range of motion was so limited that I couldn't raise the hand within a foot of my mouth. I kept bumping it into things. I gave up on long-sleeved shirts. They didn't fit over the bulging battery box or couldn't be buttoned over the thick prosthetic wrist. I named it Ralph, after the clumsiest kid in my grade school.

Back in his design shop, Kuniholm and his colleagues took his prosthetic arms apart and were less than impressed by what they found. They figured they could do better with a more functional design, and they made prosthetic design a major part of the work of their company, Tackle Design. Inspired by the open source (i.e., free) model of software development, they launched an online design forum called the Open Prosthetics Project, inviting contributions from anyone who cared to make them. And Kuniholm joined a DARPA project called Revolutionizing Prosthetics.

Revolutionizing Prosthetics was started in 2005 by DARPA program manager Geoffrey Ling. An army colonel and intensive-care unit doctor, Ling is one of the just 10 percent of DARPA program managers who also serve as active-duty military officers. He shrugs off the suggestion that this makes him unusual at an already extraordinary place to work. "All of us have a research background," he told me of himself and his military colleagues at DARPA, "so I don't think we're all that different from our civilian counterparts in terms of our background and training. It's just that we happen to wear a uniform."

But that uniform has led him to places that many of his civilian colleagues must learn about from afar as they seek ways to better equip their uniformed "customers" (for lack of a better word). Ling has served two tours of duty in combat zones, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. He served the latter tour after he joined DARPA, which makes him even rarer...an active-duty DARPA program manager who has served in both capacities in wartime in a combat zone.

All of which far more than informs his work at DARPA. It utterly defines it.

Colonel Ling is a Chinese American born in Baltimore and raised in New York City. He bursts with energy when he talks of his life's mission to care for wounded soldiers. The words tumble out as fast as he can form them. Time, you get the feeling from listening to Ling, is most definitely not on his side, and like so many others at DARPA, he spends his life in fast-forward. More than that, time's not on the side of the wounded he cares for...young men and women in uniform (and in many cases, even children), wounded in combat. His signature program, Revolutionizing Prosthetics, he likes to say, is not a science project; it's something we have to complete right now, to help these people.

Ling is unapologetically patriotic. "And if I sound like a flag-waver," he tells me, "tough. That's what I am. I mean, I'm not a sixties guy who wants to spit on the flag and spit on soldiers when they come back. That's a lot of bullshit." His deepest passion is to help the young men and women giving their all for their country. The politicians at home might put the cost of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of the tremendous drain on the U.S. Treasury, but for an appalling number of those who returned from their deployments, the war quite literally cost an arm or a leg. Each one of those soldiers, Ling feels strongly, has to...simply has to...receive the very highest level of support. "We have got to put our resources and take care of [the soldier]. Because he's representing us in the most positive way possible. Forget the politicians. It's young Americans like that who represent us." Ling's program is dedicated to the soldiers, but he also feels strongly that the technology has to be shared with the rest of the world. "And we're going to do it," he says. "It's America again doing the best things that America can do, which is showing that . . . we are a superpower that really tries to take care of the world."

Ling graduated from Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, with a doctorate in pharmacology, in 1982, and then went on to earn his medical degree from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., in 1989. Then he joined the army, "which was really kind of great," he says. "The army was very good to me. I'm one of those happy guys." After he finished basic training, he got assigned to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the military medical school in Bethesda, Maryland. There he treated patients, taught med students, and ran a research lab. He completed a neurology residency at Walter Reed Medical Center and then trained in neurocritical care at Johns Hopkins University, developing a specialty in caring for traumatic brain injury in wounded soldiers...

The Department of Mad Scientists
How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs
. Copyright © by Michael Belfiore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

1 An Arm and a Leg 1

2 A Special-Projects Agency 29

3 The Intergalactic Computer Network 63

4 The Robot Will See You Now 95

5 Backseat Drivers 127

6 Crazy-Ass Things 167

7 The Final Frontier 201

8 Power to the People 229

Notes 259

Selected Bibliography 279

Index 283

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2012

    Dragon

    Could you please move camp to here? Im locked out of result 1.

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    Torment?! What?!

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    Posted May 21, 2012

    greypaw

    What? Ya goona torment me some more?

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  • Posted July 3, 2011

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    Maintained My Interest

    I work for the Army and have a few good friends who are defense contractors that have experience working with DARPA. I knew a little about its history (ARPANET) and what it does before reading this book, but now know much more and appreciate the agency's work even more. The book is well researched, written simply and enjoyably, and did a great job weaving the history of the agency while discussing fascinating current projects.

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