Entries in basic research (1)


Alan Kay on Basic Research in ICT

While listening to the fireside chat moderated by Paul Saffo at the Churchill Club event last night, I found Alan Kay’s displeasure with the lack of basic research being conducted in information and communication technologies both understandable and justified.  He made several points, though the few pieces of reportage I’ve seen didn’t quite pick up on them all.

  • Basic research in ICT was in great part a byproduct of the Cold War, which made available significant amounts of funding
  • Basic research in ICT, particularly from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), benefitted enormously from the stewardship of J.C.R. Licklider and like-minded technologist-managers, who understood the ‘success-to-fail’ ratio and how best to organize project support.
  • The role of private industry in basic research was significant, and Alan referenced the minimal sums of money spent by Xerox on the work of PARC.
  • In ‘stepping up’ to address basic research in ICT, companies like Xerox (and, might I add, Bell Labs and IBM) were successful when they put the same kind of evangelistic and experienced management that Bob Taylor brought to Xerox.
  • Basic research in the private, corporate sphere was and remains (in those few places it still exists) poorly managed and shackled by inappropriate metrics and outright fear of causing industry disruption - arguably the most important outcome of basic research.
  • Corporate support in basic research appears destined to be a generally fruitless endeavor without a very significant mind- and management-shift.
Despite the ‘grass roots’ mentality and volunteerism found in today’s open source / ‘maker’ ethos, nothing in Alan’s opinion seems to compare to those few decades of work shepherded by those who (deservedly) should be considered visionary technologist managers. 
The point about the dedication of funds to basic research in ICT and its consideration in the scheme of things was brought home to me still more forcefully this morning when I noticed Simon Wardley’s reference to this article: Apple spends more on patents than R&D after Jobs patent vow

Here’s part of David Needle’s TabTimes post on last night’s conversation. 

Kay said only a few dozen people at PARC worked on the Alto and even though it was part of a pure research effort, it created “trillions of dollars” of wealth, i.e. the personal computer industry.

But he said there’s been little in the way of true tech innovation since then because the funding for basic research has dried up.

“The past 30 years have been completely mundane,” said Kay. “It’s all been scaling (of old technology) and Angry Birds.”

Kay was joined onstage by Vishal Sikka, Head of Technology and Innovation at enterprise software giant SAP, and tech forecaster Paul Saffo, Managing Director of Foresight at Discern Analytics.

Sikka agreed not enough was being done in the way of basic research, but said companies had to find ways to encourage creative ideas that could take years to develop, but would be worth nurturing even if many of them failed.

 In reading it and reflecting on the evening, Alan Kay's criticism and displeasure appears on the surface to be recognizable as that of ‘angry old men’ who romanticize their past glories and decry the present.  I have to admit, there is some of that in Alan’s comments, and it was palpable last night.  That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s not justified in that point of view.  Alan Kay is hardly one to restrict his mental efforts to re-living the past.  Thanks, Alan.