The Department of Mad Scientists: Lesson in innovation from DARPA

Are you involved with a science-based organization looking to innovate? Does that organization have a science fiction writer on staff? If it doesn’t, maybe it should! This is one of the innovation insights I drew from reading Michael Belfiore’s The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs.  And if science isn’t your organization motif, you may still want to have some mad scientist types onboard.


DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) began in the late fifties, in the US.  It’s been at the forefront of technological innovation ever since.  With a focus on military, its accomplishments include rockets, robots, Internet, artificial limbs, and autonomously driven cars.

Keys to success

This book tells the DARPA story, as much as possible, given the nature of the organization and its need for secrecy.  The author digs into the DARPA culture, and way of doing things.  Here’s some of the insights offered up as to DARPA’s success (its had failures too), many of which may have applicability in your organization, or any organization:

  • Focused mission; e.g., DARPA’s mission has first and foremost been as an agent of change for US armed services, being first changes the game
  • Total focus on customer; at DARPA, people want to see the entire package from end to end make sense before even taking the first step in development
  • Emphasis on quickly moving projects from concept to working prototype, while making as efficient use of funds Break problem down into manageable chunks
  • Acceptance of failure; differentiate from academic researchers who are evaluated on # of publications; and an environment where one tends to publish only successes, not failures, and yet failures are the path to true breakthroughs
  • Hiring approach; 3 questions to ask your potential hire:
    • What is your dream? (is their passion?)
    • Do you feel lucky? (looking for people keen on creating their own luck and opportunities)
    • How many speeding tickets have you had? (filter out those who are too risk averse)
  • Just 2 layers of management program office director & head of DARPA himself often creates a heady atmosphere where a program manager can dream up a wild-haired idea in the morning, work up a pitch hunched over a sandwich at his or her desk over the lunch, and then get the idea funded a DARPA program in the afternoon
  • Term limits for its managers (6 years max) ensures people who do its most important work care more about fulfilling the agency’s mission that protecting their jobs
  • Farming out; Agency doesn’t maintain its own laboratories but instead farms out work to other organizations, allowing it to consistently stay ahead of the technological curve by quickly developing new capabilities and letting others go as the need arises
  • Science fiction; the best DARPA program manager are science fiction writers, ideas are everything: there are thousands of people who can execute an idea, its coming up with it in the first place, I search my memory for those things I read about in science fiction and began building them because the technology was now available now (which reminds me of when I was a kid, one of my favourite reads was the Tom Swift series, and I only recently discovered that the TASER weapon is named after one of Tom’s choice armaments the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle)


Fun on the horizon

Here’s a few of the things DARPA is working on and that I expect to see in civilian application, before too long!

  • Self-programming thinking machines; we are going to have computers that will learn you as opposed to you having to learn them.  What this will mean is that your computer will be with your from the moment (you’re born and as) you grow up, and it will, over time, get to know you, know what your habits are, know what you want to see, know how you take in information, know when you want information.
  • Future surgical patients will have it different; as part of the diagnostic and intake process, a doctor would give his or her patient a total body scan to upload a computer model of the patient into a computer system. This Holographic Medical Electronic Representation or HOLOMER will be used by the surgeon, who would operate on the HOLOMER of the patient rather than on the patient himself, correcting mistakes, editing and perfecting, reviewing simulations of the operation, and then only when the procedure was perfect, the surgeon would send for the actual patient, load him into the automated operation room, and click Print” that is, send the command to the robots to get to work (and do the surgery).
  • Robotically driven cars will be in demand by aging baby boomers.  You’re still in the car, its just the robot is behind the wheel; all to keeping you functioning at a high level.

Oh yes, and then there’s ARPA-E, whose goal is to remove energy (oil) as a source of conflict, worldwide.

DARPA draws many of its ideas and inspiration from the world of science fiction.  How about you? What unusual source do you get your ideas from? Whose your mad scientist?

Photo credit: David Scalzo on Flickr

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to my blog. Thanks, Ben.


  1. Yes, Jack Cover named his TASER after Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (Grosset & Dunlap, 1911). However, the design concept actually comes from an earlier book also produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the Great Marvel series by “Roy Rockwood” called Under the Ocean to the South Pole (Cupples & Leon, 1907). Both books were ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis (creator of Uncle Wiggily on his own) from Edward Stratemeyer’s outlines. For details and quotes from these books and Jules Verne, see my 1996 article:

    “Who Invented Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle?”

    Jack Cover’s (1920-2009) youthful reading (perhaps in 1930) led to the TASER more than a half century after the stories were written.

    What would have been different if his patent had been denied because of “prior art” in these stories. Recall that many patents (e.g. “machine vision”) are little more than science fiction stories themselves on a patent application.

    James Keeline

  2. Fascinating James. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about Tom Swift and the TASER. And, it buffers the notion that ideas for future inventions/innovations may already be out there. We just have to bring them back from where they’ve been hiding for a while.

  3. Education is the most important asset in life. We can be rich or famous but without education or knowledge we are nobody

Speak Your Mind