They Invented the Internet (No, Really)

Review: Annie Jacobsen, ‘The Pentagon’s Brain’

Pentagon / Wikimedia Commons

In The Pentagon’s Brain, Annie Jacobsen takes us inside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. Based in a non-descript building in Arlington, Virginia, and with an annual budget of around $3 billion, DARPA is responsible for cutting edge research and development projects for the Department of Defense.

The book begins by explaining the rationale that lead to DARPA’s establishment (as "ARPA") in 1958. Concerned by Soviet nuclear weapons research and space exploration—especially the surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957—President Eisenhower decided that the United States needed a means of retaining its qualitative technological edge. As often is the case with cutting edge technologies, DARPA’s new tools were sometimes so advanced that they caused problems as well as offering solutions. We read of a 1960 incident in which a U.S. long-range missile tracking system alerted its operators to an imminent "thousand-strong Soviet ICBM attack". In fact, the tracking system "had spotted the moon nearly a quarter of a million miles distant"! Fortunately, the military site commander intervened, preventing U.S. nuclear retaliation.

Vietnam shaped DARPA’s interest in psychological research, guerilla warfare—and jungle defoliation, a signal case in which the effects of the agency’s research led to unintended and hugely negative consequences. Luckily for the agency’s reputation, the Internet proved to be almost completely the opposite case. Designed to facilitate command and control and information sharing, the concept and early technology for what became the web was DARPA’s greatest legacy.

In the last decade and a half of war, the agency has been challenged to develop countermeasures and detection programs to address the threat of chemical and biological attacks. These later chapters are the most interesting part of The Pentagon’s Brain, as we learn how DARPA has worked in the shadows to develop capabilities against insurgents and terrorists. We learn about the covert surveillance systems that DARPA developed to monitor insurgent networks in Iraq. We learn of the new technologies designed to "smell out" the chemical signature of a bomb from over two miles away. We hear about the vast effort that has gone into countering IEDs, and how how tiny ‘insect’ like drones have been developed to autonomously monitor, track, and perhaps attack US adversaries.

For those who are concerned about the potential that the Machines might one day take over, news of DARPA’s current initiatives will be distressing, as Jacobsen provides information about the agency’s highly-classified efforts to control human behavior and integrate robotics technology with human beings.

Early in the book Jacobsen quotes one of the agency’s founders: "Everyone was excited, full of ideas, and very patriotic." Jacobsen’s research reveals plenty of mistakes, some of them grievous, but little to undermine that early assessment.