Happy 2015! My New Year’s resolution is to write more posts for this Blog by trying to write some short, simple observations for our MEM community. We’ll see how that goes. Now on to my current blog; I am already having trouble with the “shorter” part…..
For those of us old enough to remember the heyday of the former AT&T Bell Laboratories research machine, we think fondly of those days when a major laboratory could pursue paradigm-shifting inventions with no real knowledge of whether they would ever be profitable endeavors. The former AT&T Bell labs can take credit for such inventions as the transistor, cell phone technology, solar cells, the laser, communications satellites, digital switching, the fax machine and the list goes on. Bell Labs is responsible for some 33,000 patents and employed 12 Nobel Laureates with 7 Nobel Prizes going to Bell Labs inventions. Yet employment is now down from 30,000 at its peak to around 1,000 – ouch! (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_36/b4145036681619.htm). Clearly AT&T Bell Labs did not benefit commercially to the same extent they were successful scientifically (http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkanellos/2012/06/27/was-bell-labs-overrated/). So a key issue with all of these great inventions was that the company didn’t make sufficient money on them. It took decades for the inventions to make money and when they did, often it was from products that were not commercialized by AT&T. Over the years Bell Labs went through many transitions from splitting to being absorbed to being downsized but the overarching theme was “do more applied work that has shorter-term and more obvious market potential.” This trend has continued with many corporate research labs following suit, even when they weren’t as blue-sky oriented as Bell Labs. The same has even happened to university research although not to the extent that it has for industry. And I would argue that this has been beneficial for universities – they have also become more applied to fill the gap left by this industry transition but are now the primary long term research outlet. They have been able to work more closely with industry over the years and to be utilized as a key long term research arm for many companies and for government agencies (the “6.1” money).
So how does this relate to Google X? As I was driving along today on the highway watching a car in front of me drifting from side to side, not able to stay within the white lines (a texting driver perhaps?), I thought about the Google X driverless car (after backing far away from the drifting car!). It seems that this is another blue sky project decades away from any commercial value. Is it an old Bell Labs-like project? I went on to Google’s web site and found several more of these (space elevators, teleportation, hover boards and even a mosquito zapping laser to fight malaria! See: http://www.fastcompany.com/3028156/united-states-of-innovation/the-google-x-factor). Thus, is Google X the next Bell Labs and is that a good thing? Are they making up for the lack of blue sky research that went away when places like Bell Labs changed their culture? And perhaps more importantly, have they been able to do this without being part of a government lab or a regulated industry, like the old AT&T Bell Labs? I think the resounding answer to all these questions is YES!
So the point of all this is that we seem to have moved into an era of blue sky research that is built on the financial success of technology innovations and the associated billionaires (think Gates, Schmidt, Ellison, Bezos, Page, Dell). The billionaires of the world and their successful ventures are now putting money back into all kinds of crazy (in a good way) projects and basic research because they can! They have the financial strength. The ideas are born out of a deep knowledge of commercial success coupled with a passion for science and technology. These blue sky projects might be different than the old Bell Labs type and perhaps that means we need university science more than ever to build a pipeline of new research, but in any case, they are incredibly interesting and should excite any geek! What geek would not want to use lasers to zap a disease carrying insect? And for the basic science, these billionaires are teaming up with the universities (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/science/billionaires-with-big-ideas-are-privatizing-american-science.html?_r=0). It is a new, exciting era. Invention and the ensuing innovation pipeline are alive and well.
Footnote: I began to wonder if this AT&T Bell Labs-Google X comparison had already been written about and sure enough, see: http://www.wnyc.org/story/inside-google-x-bell-labs-today/!