History of Darpa, ‘The Department of Mad Scientists’ by Michael Belfiore, and Roboethics

The following suggested reading was passed on to me by a good friend of mine, Francisco Grajales (@Ciscogiii).

This New York Time book review summarizes some interesting content from Michael Belfiore’s book ‘The Department of Mad Scientists’.

The following excerpts introduce a few interesting roboethics questions from the NYT book review: Book Review – History of Darpa – ‘The Department of Mad Scientists,’ by Michael Belfiore – Review – NYTimes.com.

So maybe we’ll let robots drive our cars. But would you let a robot cut you open? That’s Darpa’s next project. In minimally invasive surgery, doctors insert very thin instruments through keyhole-size incisions…

But if sensory feedback can extend a surgeon’s body across a room, why stop there?… Why not extend this transition, playing out the surgery in virtual reality and then editing out any errors? That’s the next step: surgery with a word processor, so to speak, instead of a typewriter…

So maybe you’ll let a robot fix your body. But would you let one join your body?

Amputees are getting surgeries to make their motor signals more readable by myoelectric arms. The human is being reconfigured for the machine.

“Why can’t I plug my arm right into a USB port?” For that matter, who needs a USB port? Limb designers have devised injectable sensors that can transmit motor commands to artificial arms through wireless signals….


But your arm can also be hacked. And that raises an unsettling question: If humans marry machines, who will control the marriage? In its 2007 car contest, Darpa took elaborate measures to stop robots from going rogue. Each vehicle was outfitted with multiple shutdown devices and trailed by a human driver with a kill switch. The penalty for the slightest disobedience was immediate disqualification. But at least one team, according to Belfiore, liked to run simulations with its car’s “software aggression level cranked up into what they jokingly called Rambo mode.”

Imagine your arm in Rambo mode. Something like that has already been reported: Michael Weisskopf, a journalist who lost his right hand in Iraq, was making a turn in rush-hour traffic sometime later when, as Belfiore describes it, Weiss kopf’s new hand “clenched the wheel of his car in a death grip and refused to let go.” It was just a misunderstanding. But electronic limbs are being programmed to make more and more decisions. After all, it isn’t just your body anymore. It’s theirs, too.

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One comment

  1. […] Michael Belfiore is a writer focused on breakthrough technologies poised to change our world and is the author of The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs. He writes for Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Air & Space, and for emerging technology companies. (- See post on his book here) […]

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