Q&A: 'IPad deconstructed' forum makes case for federal research

At closed door Capitol Hill briefing, CAPTCHA inventor Luis von Ahn touts benefits of U.S.-funded research to lawmakers

WASHINGTON -- In an effort by organizers to spark the interest of lawmakers, a closed-door U.S. Capitol forum on the future of federal research was given a provocative title: "Deconstructing the iPad: How Federally Supported Research Leads to Game-Changing Innovation."

The researchers at the forum tried to use Apple's iPad to help stop Congress from deconstructing the federal research budget, which helps support development of technologies that lead to successful commercial products like the popular tablet computer.

The forum was held by the Task Force on American Innovation, an industry and academic group, and was closed to the press so those attending could speak openly, a spokesperson for the task force said.

The congressional sponsors of the forum were U.S. Randy Hultgren (R-Il.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.).

The panel was moderated by Luis von Ahn, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a staff research scientist at Google, who may be best known for his work on CAPTCHAs, which are widely used by Web sites to verify human users. He was the founder and CEO of ReCAPTCHA Inc., which was acquired by Google, in 2009. He has also been awarded a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant.

The expert panelists included William Phillips, Nobel Laureate in physics, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In an interview with Computerworld after the forum, von Ahn explained its intent.

Why was the forum titled "deconstructing the iPad"? We took something that was a pretty big game changer, which is the iPad. (You could also consider the iPhone, he added.) It's an amazing innovation. But if you look at every one of its components, the majority actually come from federally supported research. The fact that the chips can be so small, to sensors (such as) the GPS - all of it comes from federally supported research. At lot of times, the research was just done to understand the physical world better. But at the end of the day an innovative company like Apple can take these things and put them together into a really game-changing product.

Do you think that it is apparent to people that the federal government funded a lot of these developments? It's not as apparent as it should become. The reason why the iPad was done by a U.S. based company was because the federal government spends all this money making the components.

What message did you want your audience to leave with? I think the message was that all of these game changing technologies usually come from the ecosystem -- that is really great about the United States -- of federally funded research and industry. We just took just one example -- the iPad -- and showed pretty much how every component can be traced back to federally funded research. The message is that the iPad is not alone.

The Computing Research Association says that the Senate, in its 2012 budget proposal, is recommending cuts to science research funding. Specifically, funding for the National Science Foundation would be set at $6.7 billion next year, a reduction of $162 million or 2.4% from this year. (The House in July recommended a flat budget for the NSF - which the association called a cut when inflation is considered). What's your take on this? We should not take that money away. The federally funded research that was done 20, 30 years ago, is what's leading to things like the iPad today. By reducing the research budget, all we're doing is eating our corn seed - it's eating what we are going to be needing 20 years from now. The U.S. is currently the technological leader, but it's not clear that it can be sustained if the percentage that we're spending on science and technology and research is so much lower than many other countries.

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