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The best of times in science and tech

SRI head Curt Carlson tells why these are heady days and where things are going from here. Photos: Innovation on display at SRI

Curt Carlson will gladly tell you he's gone to heaven.

Technologist heaven, that is, thanks to his dream job as CEO of SRI International, a veritable Willy Wonka factory of science and tech R&D.

Once known as Stanford Research Institute for its home at the prestigious university from 1946 to independence in 1970--SRI is a nonprofit that's been instrumental to the development of everyday marvels like the computer mouse, the PC, the cell phone and high-definition television. In the early 1950s, SRI even crunched the numbers to find the perfect location for Walt Disney's Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

Despite the ubiquity of those wonders, SRI is more like a silent partner engineering the future, working with government, industry and its own spinoff companies to introduce technology and scientific innovation to the public.

As SRI's visionary for the last seven years, Carlson is as unassumingly brilliant as the company's own brand. A professional violinist by 15 years of age with the Rhode Island Philharmonic where he grew up, Carlson eventually traded one passion for another when he enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute out of school. In 1973, he landed a job at Princeton, N.J.-based RCA Laboratories, which became part of SRI in 1987 as the Sarnoff Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary. There, he helped found more than 10 companies and pioneered development of HDTV technology that would become the standard in the United States.

CNET News.com spoke recently with the 58-year-old executive at SRI's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Carlson discussed his upcoming book on innovation (to be released by the Crown Publishing Group in June) and the future of science and technology.

Q: It's SRI's 60th anniversary this year, how would you define this era in its history?
Carlson: We are adapting to this exciting age, and we are seeing a world of abundance. We are putting together a family of...programs that I think would really make a huge impact on the United States and the world.

SRI

So, for example, we just demonstrated what we call a direct carbon fuel cell. So imagine if you had a device that could burn coal cleanly with about 70 percent efficiency, which is twice what you get if you burn coal today. That's how we are building that system, and it could have a revolutionary impact.

Imagine titanium that's closer to the cost of aluminum than what it is today. We wouldn't build things out of aluminum. We build out of titanium. And we're working at clean water--water in most parts of the world is more valuable than oil. So we're developing advanced technologies for that.

Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Carlson: So we have been developing new technologies that get around the traditional problems of expense and a lot of energy to be able to (desalinate) and create clean water.

In drug discovery, we just formed the new Critical Path Institute with the University of Arizona and the FDA. (This) is the first time anyone has ever gotten a partnership (to develop drugs)...because today it takes about 15 years and a billion dollars to create a new drug, and that model is not tenable. And the goal of this new institute is to reduce that 15-year timeline down to three years. Now that's enormously aggressive, but we can see emerging a family of technologies that could begin to incrementally chip away at how long it takes to develop new drugs.

Which areas are you looking into in drug development?
Carlson: Well, the purpose of this institute is to look at the entire process (of drug development) in a very comprehensive way. The whole field of bio-informatics, for example, (involves) computing and information technology (to develop drugs.) We are doing an enormous amount of work here. We are developing new cancer drugs here...We have a number of them in the pipeline.

What other marquee projects do you have cooking in the labs?
Carlson: We developed the core technology for minimally invasive robotics surgery. The idea formed in a company, Intuitive Surgical, which is now a $4 billion company. And the idea is, instead of doing open heart surgery by cutting open your chest cavity, which means you have to be in the hospital for a week or two, you put three probes into your chest cavity, with three small tubes, but at the end of the tubes, allow the doctor to be able to see in 3D and have the sense of touch as well as if he actually was inside your chest cavity...So in principle the doctor doesn't have to be anywhere near the patient. The doctor could be across the world to do an operation like this.

Innovation is also a creative act, and the question is, how can you be more disciplined about it, how can you create a process that'll be much more effective in getting you from the start to the end?

What we just won from DARPA, a government agency, is a project to work with Intuitive Surgical and other partners to shrink this technology down to the size of a medium-size table. So the patient would be on it--first in a battlefield situation where a robot would be able to clean the patient's suture wounds, take blood samples tests, and be connected back to an operator at a remote site to be able to take care of patients.

We think this kind of technology will end up in emergency rooms.

I know you're writing a book about the process of innovation. Please talk about that.
Carlson: Well, the first observation about innovation is it's a process. Innovation is also a creative act, and the question is, how can you be more disciplined about it, how can you create a process that'll be much more effective in getting you from the start to the end?

We've studied best practices from companies all over the world for 15 years, 20 years now actually, and every time we find somebody (with) the best practice, we would like to study them.

Give me an example of a company you've worked with that has influenced you or been a best practice icon.
Carlson: Certainly, one company we spend (a lot of time looking at) is Toyota. Toyota is very disciplined in the way they go about their innovation process.

(Its) factory across the (San Francisco) bay...used to be the worst in America, and after Toyota formed a joint venture with GM a couple of years later it was the best factory in America--same people, same technology, same union.

There's a whole philosophy behind what they do, but one of the key ideas is to involve everybody in the organization on a quest for continuous improvement. At SRI, we call that tapping into the genius of the team. So, if any CEO thinks he's going to make all the decisions in the company today, you know, that's a hopelessly naive thought. The genius in the organization resides in the people who are actually doing the work or touching the products...who (are interacting) with customers and who understand the technology--that's where the innovations are going to happen.

How does that apply to SRI, and do you always work with clients on projects?
Carlson: Almost always. We invest a great deal of money back into our own programs. But the end objective has always been to do great science and get that eventually in the hands of real users so we (can make) an impact.

This is the best time in the history of science and technology. There are more opportunities in every field, whether it (is) biotech or nanotech, infotech--everything is up for grabs.

The process for innovation we have here, we call the SRI five disciplines of innovation...The first one is, work on important problems, not interesting ones, and we take that very seriously.

This is the best time in the history of science and technology. There are more opportunities in every field, whether it (is) biotech or nanotech, infotech--everything is up for grabs.

Why now?
Carlson: It's the convergence of a number of factors...creating transformational opportunities. For example, the emergence of modern biotech, where we treat (health problems)...by looking at our genome and (asking) what are the implications of that kind of genome and how does the chemistry in our body works. That's a transformational event in the history of biology. We're just in the beginning of that, and that's going to play out over the next 20, 30, 50 years.

In terms of materials, we can now design materials at the atomic level, atom by atom; we couldn't do that 20 or 30 years ago. And even in IT, we're beginning to create computers that are as fast as the human brain. By 2020 or 2030 the desktop computer will have more raw computing power than the human brain. So, at that point, you're going to have a different kind of relationship with your computer; it's going to be much more intelligent.

What does that mean for the U.S.?
Carlson: Well, it is a world of abundance. I have never seen greater opportunities in my career, in every field. And so for example, the Internet is still not fast enough, it's not secure, it's not trusted, and it's not safe. We need a whole new Internet.

We have new infectious diseases. We have the issue of aging and how we help people live a higher quality of life as they get older. The environment--we don't have clean energy yet. All of these things...you can see on the horizon, and they're going to give way under just wave after wave of new innovations. In order to take advantage of those opportunities you have to have the right skills.

I was reading the other day that since 1950, the five-year period with the greatest increase of productivity has been the last five years, and productivity is the precursor to growth, prosperity and quality of life. Now that's amazing when you consider 9/11, which is when we lost almost a trillion dollars from events like the war on terror, the oil shock, Katrina and the Internet bubble (bursting).

I think it is because America has been adapting to this expediential economy better than most economies. Silicon Valley...exemplifies that.

There seems to be a scarcity of engineering talent in the Valley. How do you compete for people with companies like Google, and in your mind, what's the solution to that?
Carlson: We are not producing enough computer scientists in the United States. The numbers have...gone slightly negative over the last 10 years, which I think...is really inappropriate given the opportunities. Part of it...(is) education, and the media doesn't help this issue because it's always projecting doom and gloom as opposed to abundance.

The way we compete here at SRI is we give people the chance to work on really important problems, not just interesting ones...So I think SRI is somewhat unique in allowing our employees to make the biggest impact they are capable of...That's a very unusual thing.

What do you think the solution is technologically in the classroom?
Carlson: In terms of the technologies, we think there is an opportunity...with small PDA-like devices. Computers in the classroom are too much--too distracting, too expensive, (breakable). But a small device, you know, surrounded by rubber that ultimately costs $20 and (could be) networked in to the student and the teacher up front. You can begin to have real-time interactive learning.

So the teacher says, "Draw a parabola." Everybody draws a parabola and the teacher knows instantly what percentage of the students understood. Whereas today, he or she wouldn't know that, so they have to go around individually sampling the classrooms. So if 80 percent of the students got it wrong, then the teacher probably would want to go back and review what a parabola looks like.

That's an example of the kind of thing that we are working hard to develop with our partners like Microsoft, Intel, Scholastic, TI, Palm.

Scientific research has taken a hit in this country, with labs at NASA being cut and so forth. How does SRI fit into the landscape?
Carlson: I think the state of scientific research in America right now is still superb. The big corporate labs like RCA labs, where I was in my first part of my career, and Bell Labs are very different organizations today. That model which came from Thomas Edison, who created the central research lab, is not very productive in today's world.

The idea that you can do everything yourself in today's world is a prescription for getting into trouble fast. The key is to put together teams to first identify the major opportunities and then to assemble teams that can move really, really quickly to capture those opportunities. The people who take that perspective do very well, and it's not a centralized research model.

The idea that you can do everything yourself in today's world is a prescription for getting into trouble fast.

For example, we have a program here--it happens to be a government program, but it's typical of what we do--it is to develop the next generation of iPods that are intelligent. You'll be able to talk to it; it will able to talk back to you. It will be able to plan and help you navigate through all the choices you have to make every day.

We assembled a who's who of people in the United States; all the great researchers in artificial intelligence from MIT, CMU and Stanford and Harvard are part of the team.

In fact, this is one of the five disciplines of innovation that we teach: is how do you put these teams together...effectively, what are the criteria, how should we think about that?

What will the device be called, and when will it come out to the public?
Carlson: I don't know what it will be called; that's a bit of marketing. But it will be a true personal assistant. It's coming out incrementally right now. There is rudimentary speech recognition on devices, and in over the next five to 10 years, it will just become more part of available technology.

What are you working on in the realm of Internet security?
Carlson: In terms of information technology, we are the site for security research for the U.S. government.

The angle that we are pursuing is trust. So when we say trust we mean the users...don't have to be afraid that they are going to be compromised or taken advantage of or abused in any way. Technologically, there are ways to say, yes we can have security and yes the user can have a trust in the system. So with our partners (like Microsoft), we are working on a family of those kinds of solutions that we hope eventually will be embedded in the next generation of the Internet.

Some sort of a chartered network?
Carlson: Yes, but still allowing you the access that is represented by the Internet.

The Internet, even though it's not that old, was designed for a different era, and at some point, we need to either find a way to build things on top of this one or incrementally find a way to create a very different kind of Internet.

It could be a sub-service or it could be a completely new Internet. There is a lot of discussion right now about, let's call it, Internet 2.0. The Internet, even though it's not that old, was designed for a different era, and at some point, we need to either find a way to build things on top of this one or incrementally find a way to create a very different kind of Internet that would have all the new services and values that we want. Certainly anybody that gets 100 pieces of junk mail a day, they're not happy with today's Internet.

With the government wanting access to search records from sites like Google, how are you preserving privacy in any of these solutions?
Carlson: Well, privacy is part of trust. I mean, there are times when you want to be protective that way. So yes, I mean they all have to be baked into it. Again, there are all kinds of political issues with this. We are on the innovative side of this equation, not the political side of it. We are trying to develop good options for people so that everything doesn't become political.

What is the signature invention from SRI that you name-drop at cocktail parties?
Carlson: The mouse, because the mouse is such a ubiquitous name you know. It's a pretty universal symbol. But you cannot go a day without touching something from SRI, whether you mail a letter or you call up a friend or type in .com, .net, .org or use your cell phone.

What's on the horizon this year?
Carlson: Our goals are...these big issues and putting together the right team and solving them...things like direct hydrogen fuel cells, you know, something's that transformative.