American Socialism: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My iPhone

In technology, government is not the problem; it is the solution

Could that be a slender iPhone? Peter Sellers in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”

New camera systems are usually the focus of any iPhone launch. And, while 5G capability may have made the headlines at last week’s iPhone 12 debut, Apple did not disappoint on the camera front: A new, larger image sensor combined with cleverer image-processing software helps in low-light situations, corrects distortions and enables many other features.

A bit of history: The CMOS active pixel sensor (the “camera chip” that enables all modern digital photography) was first developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), back in 1993 by an engineer named Eric Fossum. Later, Fossum left JPL to found Photobit Corporation to commercialize the technology. Even later, as active pixel technology began to make its way into a variety of applications (web cams, high speed and motion capture cameras, digital radiography, endoscopy (pill) cameras and digital single lens reflex cameras and camera-phones), the market opportunity it created attracted a host of image sensor startups in the United States. Eventually, Photobit was purchased by Micron Technology, which, together with Omnivision, came to dominate the early CMOS sensor market.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a federally funded research and development center managed for NASA by Caltech. Through a process known as technology transfer, JPL licensed its active pixel technology to commercial manufacturers for virtually no money at all. In other words, American taxpayers funded the development of a technology that created a vast amount of wealth for American enterprise. Though only a handful of manufacturers made a killing on the technology, the general public enjoyed the benefits of the cultural revolution that it spawned. (That American companies eventually ceded this leadership to foreign companies is another story).

It’s worth noting that, beyond the camera sensor, much of the technology of the smart phone, and of computing in general, was seeded by the Federal Government’s redistribution of tax-payer wealth to its research agencies and eventually to private enterprise, with the ultimate hope that it provide benefits to the public at large — not only in military capability but also as products, services and employment. The United States, uniquely among nations, has deployed this strategy, aggressively, to stimulate its industrial base, especially in technology. I call this American Socialism and it’s worked exceedingly well.

Some economists may well cringe at this interpretation of socialism, but I see it as an extrapolation of one of many definitions of socialism provided by Webster’s dictionary: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” In this case, it’s not so much the means of production, but rather, it is the means of invention — upstream from production. Contrast that to traditional venture capital: Unlike a venture capitalist, the Federal government is patient, it does not demand an immediate return on its investment in research, nor does it expect one; most importantly it invests in hunches and ideas, which no venture capitalist would dare to. It invests for the common good.

Consider GPS: In 1996 President Clinton issued a policy directive declaring the Global Positioning System (GPS) — originally conceived by Roger Easton, a scientist at the Naval Research Labs, who also directed its development — — as a national asset that would continue to be owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Initially intended solely for the U.S. military, the GPS project was initiated by DoD in 1973, with the first prototype spacecraft launched in 1978 and the full constellation of 24 satellites operational in 1993. In November 2004, Qualcomm announced successful tests of GPS for mobile phones. Today, GPS is on every smart phone.

Once again, the bottom line is that the US government used tax-payer money to create something we take for granted and that we use every single day without paying a dime in usage or licensing fees. Venture capital got involved only when companies were started to exploit this asset.

There’s much more, of course.

It’s widely known that the Internet is a reincarnation of ARPANET, developed at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed the Defense Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), starting in the early 1970s.

ARPANET was the first wide-area network to use packet switching, rather than the conventional circuit switching technology. Packet-switched networks move data in separate, small blocks — packets — based on the destination address in each packet. When received, packets are reassembled in the proper sequence to make up the message. Circuit-switched networks require dedicated point-to-point connections during calls. The main advantages that packet switching has over circuit switching is efficiency and resiliency. Packets can find their own data paths to their destination address without the need for a dedicated channel.

In the early 1980s, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), commonly known as TCP/IP, were established as the communications protocol for ARPANET. TCP/IP remains the standard protocol for the Internet as we know it today.

After decades of gestation in academia and government labs, it was an act of Congress that birthed the modern Internet: The High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 (“The Gore Bill”), sponsored by then Senator Al Gore, allocated $600 million for high performance computing and for the creation of the National Research and Education Network. The NREN brought together industry, academia and government in a joint effort to accelerate the development and deployment of gigabit/sec networking. Gore’s legislation also helped fund the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where a team of programmers, including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, created the Mosaic Web browser, the commercial Internet’s technological springboard. “If it had been left to private industry, it wouldn’t have happened,” Andreessen said of Gore’s bill, “at least, not until years later.” After selling Netscape to AOL Andreessen went on to found the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz where he serves as general partner.

The fine hand of the Federal government can be detected in many of the component systems that make the smartphone the epitome of technological achievement. Perhaps the most technologically significant feature of the Apple IOS is Siri, a speech recognition and intelligent assistant that debuted at Apple’s World Wide Development Conference in 2012 and has been part of Apple’s mobile operating systems since IOS 5.

Man has always wanted to command his machines using natural language. Siri (along with her sisters Alexa, and “Hey Google”) aren’t –yet — as intelligent as HAL 9000, the main antagonist in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they’re on their way. All have their roots in DARPA’s Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) program. Under PAL, the CALO artificial intelligence project to integrate numerous AI technologies into a cognitive assistant brought together over 300 researchers from 25 of the top university and commercial research institutions, with the goal of building a new generation of cognitive assistants that “reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, reflect on their experience, and respond robustly to surprise.“ CALO, recognized as the largest artificial intelligence project ever undertaken, was launched under a DARPA five-year contract, starting 2002. Siri was a direct spin-off.

Siri’s original release received mixed reviews. It was hailed for commercializing voice recognition on a large scale, but it was clunky. It couldn’t understand certain accents. But in the intervening years machine learning techniques modeled on workings of the human brain have allowed computers to be trained on huge datasets of speech, enabling excellent recognition across many people using many different accents. Today, Siri speaks more than a dozen languages. It was invented by government support, but its evolution has been driven by private enterprise.

That is as it should be. The U.S. government spurs invention through basic and applied research but stands aside when it comes to product development and generational refinement. The problem, of course, is that the public has notoriously short memories. Viewed through the lens of history of technology, the old Reagan war cry, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem,” rings hollow. On the contrary, government support of research is — and continues to be — the single biggest contributor to this country’s leadership in technology.

To paraphrase Einstein, if Steve Jobs looked into the future, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants: The American taxpayers and their elected government.

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Just trying to figure things out.

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Girish Mhatre

Girish Mhatre

Just trying to figure things out.

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