Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: The Department of Mad Scientists

Unlike so many of my generation (and many before), I do not think the world is getting worse and worse, that things were better yesterday and will not be as good tomorrow.  Yes, I understand that some things aren’t going well, from the extinction of many life forms to the chaotic effects on the environment unchecked resource squandering is causing.  But, overall, people are becoming more peaceful, more educated, healthier.  Primitive superstitions are on the wane and in spite of religions’ fitful and desperate attempts to drag us back into the shadows, science and reason are on the rise.  And this is thanks to more than just the famous champions like Bertram Russell, Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins, or Neil Degrasse Tyson.  It’s because of legions of dreamers, inventors, and futurists, people who strive every day to make the world a better place, to improve what we have and make what we need.  People who aren’t slaves to what has been done before.  This book celebrates an organization devoted to the concept of making the world a better place.  Out of so many books about waste and corruption, we see the story of a government organization that seems to actually work.  DARPA, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been instrumental in creating the world we live in and the world to come.  The internet?  Yeah, they did that.  Satellites?  Them again.  Understanding plate tectonics?  DARPA was there.  There aren’t a lot of things that came about in the last 50 years they didn’t have their hands in at some point.  The side effects of their projects alone have helped reshape the world and our perceptions of it.  And that’s just the stuff they’ll talk about.

Michael Belfiore was reporting on the rise of the private space industry when he kept coming across the name of a government agency in connection to various technologies.  Who was this DARPA which seemed to be funding so many obscure and seemingly unconnected elements the fledgling industry?  He had to find out.  It turns out, these guys weren’t so hard to find.  They just didn’t get much press because they were spending much more of their time getting work done on making science fiction into science fact than they were on making headlines.  He begins with a subject near and dear to my heart, artificial limbs.  Though the focus here is on arms and hands, which are far more complex than legs.  So much progress has been made (with so much more to go) in recreating the functions and forms of the human arm and hand.  Giving people back their personal freedom by giving them back that thing which separated us from the beasts, the human hand, is a worthy task by itself.  From this starting point, he goes into a basic history of DARPA (originally ARPA), from its brief time as America’s first space agency to its redefined mission as think tank devoted to birthing and nurturing the future.

Then there’s the Trauma Pod.  Right out of the pages of classic science fiction, this mobile robotic medic will mean the difference between life and death for soldiers on the battlefront, and eventually accident victims here and around the world.  And in the meantime, technologies to remote operate across the world, to work inside the body more precisely and safely, and to possibly treat people in deep space have all been fostered.  The potentials of this project boggle the mind, and the people working on it are kind of amazing.  I got genuinely misty at the good this cold do when put into practical use.  Up next, in an attempt to woo DARPA’s public relations person into letting him get more access (oh, and cover some pretty amazing tech developments), Belfiore goes to see the road test race of several robot vehicles and meets the teams (so many Germans) behind them.  They’re motivated by different things, but all are on the path to creating something that might revitalize automotives first on the battlefield and later on city streets.  At that event (and throughout the book), there are heroes on the front of advancing technology, like Red Whittaker, a hard-nosed ex-Marine with a ‘second place ain’t good enough’ attitude toward automated vehicle contests, who doesn’t hesitate to offer assistance to an opposing team when their car runs into trouble.  Because it’s about winning, sure.  But it’s about a ‘rising tide’ of technological advancement, too.  His drive to win goes hand in hand with his drive to bring everyone else along with him, which is the ultimate synthesis of morality and technology for which we should all strive.  What good is clean, healthy food and water if only a few lucky ones can have it?  What good is the internet if it doesn’t connect the world?  What good is advanced medicine if it isn’t used on those who need it?  We celebrate good sportsmanship because it shows the best of us.  It shows that competing and striving to be the best does not mean one must forget community and civility.  We must reach for the stars not simply to achieve them, but to lift everyone else along with us.

As the book goes on, Belfiore goes into DARPA’s return to space technology, with the research into scramjet technology, engines that could revolutionize flying and our ability to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.  How does flying half way around the world in 4 hours sound?  Better than the 20+ hour trips we do now, right?  Like everything else, like ARPA-Net, GPS, and robot piloted cars, the military applications are the focus, but nobody working on the projects is blind to their potential civilian effects.  But I think because you have a lot of people (OK, I’ll say it, under-educated right-wing nutters) who love to rattle the sabers and thump their chests, and because like science, the military has been largely vilified in film for the last 40 years (often by the left-wing equivalent nutters), one can forget that a lot of very smart people with their eyes turned toward the future, work within the various departments of the military.  Throughout the book, we meet scientists and scholars who are not bogged down with the party line.  Nobody is questioning the science of evolution or damages of climate change, nor are they questioning the need for advanced weaponry.  These are practical, scientifically minded people who are trying, in their own ways, to make the world a better place.  And yes, they’re doing it by making better military equipment.  This isn’t the contradiction it may appear to be.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in the final chapter of the book, which deals with energy and energy security.  One project leader puts it about as plainly as a person could.  By creating and improving technology that would make our combat forces, from a single soldier to a division, less reliant on an energy supply chain (fuel, batteries, food, etc.) we they are reducing the root cause of those soldiers being in combat in the first place.  Considering that much of the world’s conflict is over energy resources, removing that factor from the equation removes a great deal of the motivation for war.  Not peace through superior firepower, but peace through reduced need.  (So people can just get back to fighting over which imaginary friend/soccer team they‘re devoted to, the way Xenu/Pele intended).  The creation of extremely efficient solar technology, cleaner burning traditional energy sources, and highly potent and versatile biofuel have the potential to be the next big thing, changing the way we live in new and exciting ways.  Having read The Vertical Farm a couple weeks back, which goes a long way toward selling decentralized food production (that is, growing food in less resource demanding towers near where it will be consumed, as opposed to vast stretches of farmland removed from population centers, as it is now), the potential decentralization of power production is an exciting parallel development.  I could easily see them coming together and working in tandem as time goes on.  Combining these ideas with cleaner, safer forms of mass transit like mag-rail (not to mention more bike-friendly roads for population centers), the bio-bridges to link ecosystems across highways and what have you, and so many other concepts being realized these days, could we be on the cusp of something really grand?

With space exploration and eventual colonization, I would argue, a necessary step in the continuance of the species for myriad reasons from the biological to the spiritual (not the supernatural), learning how to better use (and replenish) our resources, to better manage our energy needs, will be an essential step.  Along the way, doing things to halt and eventually reverse damage to our environment is a heck of a side effect.  We need not be consumed by the transposed guilt of generations for the damage done to the Earth.  We need to learn from it, change the way we do things, and look to the future.  Unlike science (the study of what is) and religion (the made up explanation of what we don’t understand), there need be no gap between technology and nature.  And through the use of advanced technology, we can create a more healthy and balanced world to live in.  It takes the will to do it.  And it takes the drive to create it.  My hat is off to the ladies and gentlemen of DARPA and those they work with who represent that will and drive.  And like Michael Belfiore, I we and our government can maintain the kind of ‘benign neglect that it requires to thrive.’  I think the government (and we who empower it) as well as private industry could learn a lot from the way DARPA thinks and runs.  And I know we have and will continue to benefit from it.

The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs
Author: Michael Belfiore
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0-06-200065-1


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