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Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and current managing director of Intellectual Ventures, kicked off the Emerging Technologies Conference 2003 Wednesday morning at MIT with a keynote call to arms. His mission? Rescuing and resuscitating that most essential element of innovation: Invention.

Myhrvold recounted how conventional wisdom during the 1970s and 1980s held that there was no money to be made in the software business-that software had value as a product only when it was bundled with something more “real”-that is, hardware. Today’s conventional wisdom, he said, applies that same erroneous principle to invention: invention is valuable, the thinking goes, but only when it is bundled with real products.

“Invention is the next software,” Myhrvold said, referring to software’s ability to spur exponential growth and value increases. “Invention is the most important thing you can talk about when you discuss technology, and it’s usually neglected.”

According to Myhrvold, the practice of invention is under tremendous pressure from a number of factors in most organizations, and as a result, occupies a far lower funding priority in companies and in government than it should. This is a critical error, he argued-and one he intends to correct.

To demonstrate invention’s importance throughout the last two hundred years, Myhrvold listed various advances that arrived in three distinct time periods. First, the 19th century. “Those guys were pretty good!” he said. Myhrvold drew the cutoff line for this time period at 1910, which is when he says the Census Bureau stopped listing “inventor” as a possible occupational description. The second time frame spanned 1910 to 1975, with the cutoff there being the advent of the modern computer industry. The third stretched from 1975 to the present. “More value has been created by the companies in the last 30 years than all the companies before it,” he said. Myhrvold contrasted the Moore’s Law-fueled growth of the computer and software industries with the more sedate performance of the airline industry, which hasn’t seen any transformative advances since 1969. If aircraft technology had kept pace with the exponential improvements of the computer industry, he said, it would now be possible to fly the entire population of Boston to Tokyo in two hours.

Myhrvold lamented the shift in attitudes and mission for the major corporate research houses, noting that stalwarts such as Lucent Technologies’  Bell Labs and  IBM’s Watson Research have moved from a more a more blue sky approach to one focused on short-term gains with an impact on existing products. “These research houses are shadows of their former selves,” Myhrvold asserted. “In these big companies, you don’t invent. Most engineers are paid not to invent,” he said. “You’re mostly [working with] products. If you asked research managers if they could make a competitive, decent product without inventing anything new, would they do it, the answer would be Hallelujah brother!’”

Academia has also seen a decline in inventive activity, according to Myhrvold. “You can be a tenured professor at MIT these days without having invented anything,”’ he said.

So where does Myhrvold see the next exponential growth happening? Where you probably expect it: genomics and nanotechnology. In both areas, he said, the conditions are right for future growth: there is high consumer demand for improvements and innovation, intellectual depth, and working proofs-of-concept. He added, however, that nanotechnology is in danger of becoming the next artificial intelligence: over-hyped and under-delivering. “Nanotech doesn’t really work yet,” he said. “It’s a few breakthroughs short right now.”

To combat the decline in invention prominence, Myhrvold spoke of the invention incubator he runs called The Invention Factory. This operation has been in ramp-up mode for some time now (see “Myhrvold’s Exponential Economy), but it appears as though it’s finally getting off the ground: A visit to the jobs page on Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures site finds job postings to run the various inventor divisions dated September 22, 2003.

Myhrvold announced that he is considering offering two prizes to try and spur invention in the field of astronomy. The first would go to anyone who discovers the first verifiable extraterrestrial signal from the SETI program (in which Myhrvold is an investor). The second would be awarded to a researcher who discovers an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. “If someone discovered an asteroid due to hit Earth in two weeks, then they’d have to spend my prize money pretty fast,” he joked. “But if they found an asteroid scheduled to hit us in 50 or 100 years, what more important task could there be?”

During the question and answer session after Myhrvold’s speech, conference host Robert Metcalfe asked Myhrvold which, of all the things he has invented, was his favorite. Myhrvold  demurred, saying, “Choosing your favorite invention is like choosing your favorite kid. And both of mine are in the audience today, so I’m not going to do that.”

More ETC Coverage

The Young and the Innovative
Re-imagining the Future
Michael Dell Keynote
Jeffrey Immelt Keynote

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