Welcome to the Strangest Tech Conference You’ve Never Heard Of: Wait, What?

On the ground with DARPA

ST. LOUIS — The inventors of the Internet have some crazy ideas for the future. They want to build computers one atom at a time. They seek to turn biological molecules into synthetic “impossible materials,” whose applications we can only imagine.

They want to carpet space with miniature satellites that take photos of the planet in all places at all times. They dream of dosing the public with genetic material to turn us all into bioreactors, cranking out antibodies to give ourselves immunity to virulent flu. And that’s just from the first afternoon.

The Pentagon’s blue-sky research wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is holding a bizarre, awesome and very unique conference this week called, appropriately, “Wait, What?” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters once he heard that title, “I had to be there.”

The next few days are full of genome editing; how to use huge chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum; designing new materials; preventing nuclear war; and a lot more. This is the type of convention where a professor decked out in a colorful Hawaiian shirt can rub elbows with a Marine in dress blues, and bond over a mutual interest in synthetic biology.

DARPA was born in the age of Sputnik, went on to build the precursor to the Internet, and today gives us things like BigDog, NACHOS and MAHEM. This conference is about how its roughly 200 workers housed in a nondescript building in Washington, D.C., can build the future.

The speakers break for dramatic pauses, channeling Steve Jobs and the most iconic TED talks. Presentations are enveloped in drama that sometimes belies the actual contents, like one super-short talk by DARPA physicist Vincent Tang called “Not Even Once.” How mysterious! Turns out it was a brief introduction to a program called Sigma, which aims to detect nuclear weapons before any rogue nations or militants can detonate them “even once.”

There’s much more to come in the next couple days, so stay tuned here and on Twitter for more updates.