T his chapter sums up some of the discussions presenters and attendees had at the workshop. In a relatively short time, technology has transformed the human experience from the personal and familial to the level of entire societies and economies. Looking back over the tremendous technological achievements of the past several decades, some participants said it might be tempting to imagine that each advancement built on its predecessor and laid the foundation for the capabilities to follow. Indeed, to a casual observer, it might seem logical, even inevitable, that the personal computer led to the laptop, the smartphone, and the smart watch, or that the first computer-to-computer connection led to the Internet, to cellular networks, and to Wi-Fi.
However, as one workshop attendee pointed out, innovation does not automatically follow innovation like dominoes set on end. Rather, innovation is a messy, unpredictable, and at times convoluted process. Ideas emerge, diverge and converge, blossom and wither, only to reemerge in unexpected places decades later. Each step—from personal computer to laptop, from laptop to smartphone—requires radically new architectures, new hardware and batteries, new software and user interfaces, new ways to store and transmit information. And powering it all is an incredible amount of human ingenuity.
Given the long list of research organizations, including the federal, academic, and industrial entities mentioned over the course of the workshop, it was pointed out that none of the outcomes could have been achieved by a single company, research enterprise, or government. As another participant put it, nearly every component of every incremental technological innovation has its roots in the complex interplay among fundamental research and development in federal agencies and universities and further research, development, and deployment by private-sector companies.
In some cases, such as the early development of the Internet, as highlighted in Cerf’s presentation and the “tire tracks” graphic, the relationship among these players can be roughly visualized as a pipeline, starting with a visionary government funding program, which in turn powers academic research, which then generates insights or technologies that are ultimately adopted for commercial use by industry. In other cases, such as the parallel progress of social science and social media, advances emerge from an interwoven, interdependent ecosystem in which government and academic research and industry data and tools alternately build off of each other.
At the heart of each of the stories presented at the 2015 Continuing Innovation in Information Technology workshop lies a common theme: Several workshop attendees could not imagine that today’s incredible technological landscape would have emerged as quickly or as fully had it not been for the rich body of work conducted with government funding. Discussions among some workshop attendees highlighted that industry clearly has played a crucial role in applying, scaling, and commercializing technologies and has even conducted a good deal of early research and development. But the incentives and funding structures that drive industry are not sufficient, alone, to support the highly experimental, uncertain, and broad-based basic research that lays the foundation for truly revolutionary innovations. From critical infrastructure such as the Internet to techniques and regulations that support cybersecurity, government and government-funded research has played a central role in the development of the vast majority of computer science methods and tools that we depend on today.
As discussed by Jahanian, when the government funds computer science research to fuel engineering innovations, the costs are shared by the U.S. population. So, too, are the benefits. Several other examples presented during the workshop, including advances in the use of big data, intelligent machines, and robotics, government-supported technology innovations have supported our military and national security, fueled our global leadership in science and medicine, helped empower citizens as a whole, and enriched the economy. The benefits of industry investment in technology research and development, too, extend not only to the people
who can afford to buy the commercial products they create, but also our own military and government, as well as the economy as a whole.
The nation stands on the brink of yet new transformations. As discussed by Horovitz and Brooks, recent developments make it feasible to envision that robots will, in the not-so-distant future, routinely work alongside humans to rescue, protect, and serve us. That self-driving cars, trains, and planes will regularly deliver us safely to our destinations. That new types of immersive, responsive digital environments will instruct and amuse us. And that many of us will benefit from sophisticated devices worn in and on our bodies to support our health and well-being.
As noted by several attendees, the technologies of the past and present suggest that all of the innovations envisioned for the future—as well as those we cannot yet imagine—will likely emerge not from the genius of one person or one company, but from a complex, symbiotic cycle between government-supported long-term application-engaged research alongside industry-driven solutions and applications. Tomorrow’s technologies, like innovations past, are not a foregone conclusion. To realize envisioned innovations—and even to maintain access to the technologies already relied on—there are substantial obstacles in terms of the hardware, software, the infrastructure, and society itself. For innovation to thrive, it is crucial to cultivate the entire government–academia–industry ecosystem that supported this field in the past and that is essential to driving it forward into the future.