Technology Review has two interesting articles about the recent activities of Nathan Myhrvold, the former director of Microsoft Research. Myhrvold left MS two years ago to begin his own company basically to research whatever Nathan was interested in looking at. Ah, the pleasures being a multimillionaire with curiosity. The results/goals of this venture are described as the creation of an ‘an invention factory.’
The second article is an interview transcript with Myhrvold Myhrvold’s Exponential Economy where he mentions some very interesting topics on innovation.
Myhrvold says the following about symbolic science:
TR: What is a symbolic science?
NM: Something with deep abstractions described by lots of data. Vast amounts of data-and analyzing abstract data is one of the most important frontiers in biology and medicine. So understanding which of your genes have this, that and the other thing, or which things are being expressed in your body right now. What proteins are in over- or undersupply. Where is there a feedback control system that’s screwed up. We’re on the verge of figuring out that or a million other very complicated systems. A key tool in that’s computing. So bioinformatics, bioinformatics algorithms. Most of that stuff is at its complete infancy. One thing that’s amusing to me is that when I visited proteomics companies, you get people, although they use computers, they use them in completely boneheaded ways. So everybody has big SQL databases, big Oracle databases, under the faith that that’s a good thing to do, when it’s completely ill suited. The relational database was designed for tasks such as tracking stock room inventory or managing employee information; it was not designed for manipulating genomic base pairs and genetic information. So somebody needs to invent a bunch of stuff there. But more than that, biology and medicine are about reverse-engineering a very complicated machine. The detailed understanding of all the mechanisms and pathways by which things are regulated and controlled, the ways in which disease disrupts those regulations and how we can put them right, that’s all incredibly complicated. Well, that suggests all kinds of opportunity. What tools are missing? What are the analysis techniques that you need to do? There are a million things.
I particularly latched onto the idea of abstraction. One of my goals for my future of creativity project is to descibe the abstractions between the different levels on which creativity occurs. What will be the abstractions developed betweed communities and nations, between teams and communities? The transforming power of technology has been making these abstractions possible.
Myhrvold continues with a defense of basic science and research, both commercial and government sponsored.
TR: We have all this growth in technology, but you have been quite vocal in also pressing for more basic science.
NM: Basic science is the fundamental well from which all this stuff is watered. Ironically, basic science is being given increasingly short shrift. DARPA [the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] funding for computer science is probably the single most successful government program in the history of governments-it led to this entire revolution in computing. Yet most Silicon Valley companies that are the beneficiary of that don’t invest in fundamental research. Then you get the ludicrous thing of people in Congress saying they want more relevant research. No, you should have less relevant research.
I’ve done extensive modeling of all of this. If you’re a company that lives hand to mouth, don’t do research, okay. You don’t need me to tell you that. If you’re a company that has steady cash flows, then you should work at whatever level you can afford. So if you’re a company that intends to be around 20 years from now, like a Microsoft, you are losing money if you don’t do research. It is an incredibly profitable investment only open to a limited club-the people who can afford to take a long-term view. And that’s an industrial research context. At the government level, you really should swing for the fences.
You could make a case that research funding really won the Cold War, because it was those economic things that stoked the economy. As soon as the Soviets went from being our enemies to being potentially our friends, [people said,] now let’s stop giving lots of money to science. Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Fundamental science has been the best investment the government’s ever made.
TR: A big mark against basic research in industry is that the firms who support it don’t always capture the benefit of it-Bell Labs with the transistor, Xerox with so much of modern computing.
NM: Whether you’re expanding overseas or you’re doing any business decision, you can find someone who screwed it up and caused lots of hurt to their company. It hasn’t stopped people from doing it.
So take Xerox as an example. The same era that they started PARC [the Palo Alto Research Center, birthplace of the graphical user interface, Ethernet and other elements of digital computing], they bought a company called Scientific Data Systems. They lost a billion dollars in 1970 dollars on that. More money than they’ve spent on PARC the entire time they’ve had PARC. Nobody gives them any shit for that anymore. Everyone says, oh, Xerox screwed up PARC. They didn’t screw up PARC. PARC invented the laser printer. That one invention alone paid for PARC many times over. Yet people give Xerox a black eye for this. Why? Because they think, “But they should have done more.” Well, if you do shoulda, woulda, coulda, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. The problem that Xerox had-the fundamental problem-is that Xerox didn’t understand computers. That’s why they lost the billion dollars in that other merger. That’s also why they couldn’t commercialize any of the other computer inventions.
So you add it up, investing in basic research makes huge sense for companies. But it makes even more sense for the government. By the way, I’d love to have the rest of the world join us, because research is the kind of thing that feeds on other research. The fundamental researcher in China that isn’t being funded today might be the one who if he was funded would find the cure to the disease I’ll get in 20 years.
Myhrvold’s defense of PARC is particularly useful and highlights the point that innovation benefits everyone even, perhaps especially, when it does not have an immediate commercial application.