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.

What are other countries doing on this issue? A lot of countries have realized that one of the reasons the U.S. became so great was because of things like federally funded research. So there are lot of countries that are trying to really invest in science and technology. I think it's important to continue funding that in the U.S. Otherwise it is just going to lose the edge - it's as simple as that.

The mood in Congress today is to cut, not spend. Are you worried that we're on course where cutback in government-funded research is inevitable? It may be. I understand that things need to be cut. But I would say, and most everybody in the scientific community agrees that cutting as little as possible, or preferably not cutting anything, would be best.

Has federal research played a role in your work? Definitely. In every single case. In every single thing that I have done.

Do a lot of your students work on projects funded by the National Science Foundation? Yes they do. The model for the NSF is a really great one. The money is usually used to support students. That's really great, because not only are you educating them but these people are also doing the technology transfer. These students work at research institutions like Carnegie Mellon or MIT or Stanford and then they go get a job, say at Apple or at Google, and that is where a lot of the technology transfer is happening.

Couldn't the technology companies do some of this research on their own? That was part of our point -- (private firms) can't. At the end of the day, the larger companies usually have to respond to Wall Street. They're not looking at 50 years from now; they are looking one to two years out. If you look at the iPad, all of its components were were developed over a span on the order of 30 to 50 years. What led (for instance) to GPS was a series of discoveries that didn't have anything to do with GPS. A lot of the discoveries in research are not what we set out to find. Companies can do some of the research, but they do the research that is two or three years out.

So these companies are doing research on products that they have in mind? That's exactly right. It's great that it is happening -- this is why this is a really nice eco-system. If you look at lot of the game-changers (new technologies) over the last few years, it's not because someone was trying to solve a specific problem, it was just because somebody was trying to understand something better. One of the best examples of that is the laser. When it was discovered, nobody knew what do with it. Now we know we can use it to improve eyesight - all kinds of things.

Was the presentation worthwhile? It's hard to know. But I hope so. We were very well received.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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