February 19, 2015

Google Glass vs. The USA's R&D Toilet

If you're a regular consumer of the computer industry trade press -- a strong stomach strongly recommended -- you've probably seen a bit of gloating lately about Google pulling their Google Glass device from most consumer marketing.

Mainstream media has picked up the drumbeat too, with even major publications like The New York Times very recently running stories purporting to explain why Google Glass has "failed" or how this is emblematic of Google's supposedly imminent fall.

Those stories sound pretty scary. They're also utterly wrong. And they're wrong in a way that exemplifies why so much of U.S. industry is in a terrible research and development (R&D) slump, and why Google should be congratulated for their "moonshots" -- not ridiculed.

Once upon a time -- not so long ago relatively -- there was a reasonable understanding in this country that long-term R&D was crucial to our technological, financial, and personal futures. That's long-term as in spending money on projects that might take a long time to pay off -- or might never pay off for the firms making the investments -- but that still might play crucial roles in our future going forward.

When we think about the foundation of modern R&D, it's typical for AT&T's Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs) to spring immediately to mind. Not the Bell Labs of today -- an emaciated skeleton of its former greatness -- but of the years before AT&T's 1984 Bell system beak-up divestiture and shortly thereafter.

The list of developments that sprang forth from the Labs is mind-boggling. If Lucent Technologies did nothing else when they took over Bell Labs and hastened its decline, at least they produced in 2000 this great music video celebrating the Labs' innovations over the many decades. Mentally start subtracting out items from the list shown in that video and watch how our entire modern world would crumble away around us.

Yet -- and this is crucial -- most of those Bell Labs technologies that are so much a part of our lives today were anything but sure bets at the time they were being developed. Hell, who needs something better than trusty old vacuum tubes? What possible use is superconductivity? Why would anyone need flexible, easy to use computer operating systems?

It's only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that we can really appreciate the genius -- and critically the willingness to put sufficient R&D dollars behind such genius -- that allowed these technologies to flourish in the face of contemporaneous skepticism at the time.

Much of that kind of skepticism is driven by the twin prongs of people who basically don't understand technology deeply, and/or by investors who see any effort to be a waste if it isn't virtually guaranteed to bring in significant short-term profits.

But we see again and again what happens when technology companies fall prey to such short-term thinking. Magnificent firms like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) vanish with relative rapidity into the sunset to be largely forgotten. Household names like Kodak flicker and fade away into shadows. And as noted, even the great Bell Labs has become the "reality show" version of its former self.

Nor is it encouraging when we see other firms who have had robust R&D efforts now culling them in various ways, such as Microsoft's very recent closing of their Silicon Valley research arm.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that various researchers from Microsoft, Bell Labs, and DEC have ended up at ... you guessed it ... Google.

So it also shouldn't be surprising why it's difficult not look askance at claims that Google is on the wrong path investing in autonomous cars, or artificial intelligence, or balloon-based Internet access -- or Google Glass.

Because even if one chooses inappropriately and inaccurately -- but for the sake of the argument -- to expound pessimistic consumer futures for those techs as currently defined, they will still change the world in amazingly positive ways.

Internet access in the future inevitably will include high altitude distribution systems. AI will be solving problems the nature of which we can't even imagine today. Many thousands of lives will be saved by improved driver assist systems even if you sullenly choose to assume that autonomous cars don't become a mass consumer item in the near future. And medical, safety, and a range of industrial applications for Google Glass and similar devices are already rapidly deploying.

This is what serious R&D is really all about. Our collective and personal futures depend upon the willingness of firms to take these risks toward building tomorrow.

We need far more firms willing to follow Google's R&D model in these regards, rather than being utterly focused on projects that might suck some coins quickly into the hopper, but do little or nothing to help their countries, their peoples, and the world in the long run.

Here in the U.S. we've willingly and self-destructively permitted short-term Wall Street thinking to flush much of our best R&D talent down the proverbial toilet.

And unless we get our heads on straight about this immediately, we'll be sending our futures and our children's futures down the same dark sewer.

We are far better than that.

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at February 19, 2015 03:12 PM | Permalink
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