In an op-ed about the importance of protecting federal research, Steve Lohr cites an interesting stat from a report this year by the National Research Council. The report
looked at eight computing technologies, including digital communications, databases, computer architectures and artificial intelligence, tracing government-financed research to commercialization. It calculated the portion of revenue at 30 well-known corporations that could be traced back to the seed research backed by government agencies. The total was nearly $500 billion a year.
According to the head of the committee that produced the report,
“If you take any major information technology company today, from Google to Intel to Qualcomm to Apple to Microsoft and beyond, you can trace the core technologies to the rich synergy between federally funded universities and industry research and development.”
Who’s the pinko socialist atheist behind that quote? Why that would be Peter Lee, a Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Research.
In my day job at a nonprofit, the team I manage is beginning to spend more time helping our organization become more “data-driven.” And I’m starting to wonder whether the work I’m doing in this blog is headed in a similar direction.
Although the title of my blog is Rethinking the Economy, I’m not trying to create a new version of, say, micro and macro. The subtle hint that this kind of economics isn’t what I want to do? Every time I try to freshen up my knowledge of macro, I get about three pages into a smartly written Econ textbook – e.g., Krugman’s – before I start daydreaming about what I should make for dinner or whether I should go to the hardware store on Saturday or Sunday.
So what am I really trying to accomplish? To help folks understand:
- How our society uses the government to set a lot of the economy’s rules– and how today these rules are designed to help big corporations and the wealthy win and the middle-class and the poor lose
- How we could change the system so everyone could have a real say in setting these rules
- How to figure out how much control we can have over the economy – to what extent can we use the rules to help create a dynamic, innovative economy that works for everyone without making the economy crash & burn
To me, this feels an awful lot like the world of data-driven decision-making.
Or to put it another way, a lot of the themes that come up in my day-to-day work are similar to the themes in my writing about the economy. To what extent does planning work? What’s the right mix of centralized and bottom-up planning? How do you build feedback loops so when things inevitably don’t go the way you expected, you can step in to fix them? How much control do we have – and how much do we deny the control we already exert?
I don’t yet have a good sense of how much overlap there really is. It’s more of a vague feeling that these two seemingly disparate parts of my life may have a lot more in common than I’d thought.
A great article in the New York Times about the burgeoning world of DIY manufacturing. Because prices of machines that let you build things have been dropping steadily, we’re getting to a point that feels a lot like the early days of PC hobbyists. And eventually it could have an equally powerful impact on the economy.
Makers, as they call themselves, can’t compete with the long, orderly rows of workers from the poorer provinces of China or India who cut, stitch and solder bras, shoes and cellphones for pennies — or even with the hundreds of billions of dollars a year worth of stuff that continues to pour out of large, old-fashioned American factories. Their method involves creating “hacker space” cooperatives, where a few dozen members share a 3-D printer, a laser cutter and an oscilloscope and engage in collaborative manufacturing projects. Makers have created companies like Shapeways and CloudFab, which for a fee will manufacture small runs of products that you design. They are becoming kit makers like Bdeir, manufacturing building blocks that allow others to create things.
Neil Gershenfeld, an M.I.T. physicist who is an intellectual godfather to the maker movement, suggested to me that the new tools would over time change global industry as we know it. He predicts a wave of new competitors for the megacorporation that designs, makes and sells products all under one brand. Instead, Gershenfeld imagines a consumer of the near future downloading a design for a mobile phone through an iTunes-like portal; buying an add-on from another firm that tweaks the design; and having it printed at a neighborhood shop in a plastic shell of your choice.
For now, the tech is still in the early stages – and there are still lots of obstacles to overcome and bugs to work out. The reporter asked one small shop if he could try building something using their “CupCake CNC, a so-called 3-D printer that spits out small plastic wares,” which costs only $699.
He guided me to the Web site Thingiverse.com, which abounds in digital models — three-dimensional files that the CupCake can print out. I browsed and chose an iPad stand …
The CupCake began to print. First the nozzle moved back and forth smoothly, dropping black plastic in neat rows. It was building a base for my object. Then it began to jitterbug, dashing unpredictably this way and that, depositing bits of the melting goo one layer at a time. Slowly it formed an iPad stand. But then, 19 minutes in, the machine lost the plot and began to squirt everywhere, and we had to start over.…
Andrew said that the design I picked might have been flawed.
In the long run, how will this tech shape the economy? For example, will it create lots of good jobs in the US? Or is that a fantasy? We are as likely to figure that out now as folks were when they first made predictions about the impact of computers on society. But definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Last year, I wrote about how everybody’s favorite idea for painlessly cutting healthcare costs – computerizing medical records – wasn’t really going anywhere. As part of the stimulus package, Obama tried to give those efforts a boost. How’d it go? Not so well, according to Computerworld:
Only 12% of U.S. hospitals had adopted electronic health records (EHR) as of last year, a modest increase over an adoption rate of 9% in 2008, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.
And of the 12% that have gone electronic, plenty are still struggling:
* A study by University College London found that many EHR projects fail, and “the larger the project, the more likely it is to fail.” Researchers say the systems can improve auditing and billing but may make primary clinical care less efficient.
* Experts from the Institute of Medicine who visited healthcare facilities last year found that “care providers had to flip among many screens and often among many systems to access data; in some cases, care providers found it easier to manage patient information printed or written on paper.”
One big reason why healthcare IT is still going so slowly: the joys of a market economy.
Often, the cost savings from the use of technology don’t go to the owner of the technology but to another player in the healthcare system, like the insurers.…A CIO at a for-profit company would have a hard time getting approval for an IT investment that saves money for the industry but not for the company.
“The incentives [in healthcare] are not aligned at all. In fact, there are perverse incentives there,” Stettheimer points out. “That’s very simplified, but it’s a problem we need to overcome.”
Exhibit 42,517 of how deeply government is embedded in the “free market”: Apple just sicced its lawyers on HTC, an Android phone manufacturer, charging that it violated a gazillion Apple patents. Why HTC and not Google, which came up with Android?
[Harvard Law Prof. Jonathan Zittrain] believes Apple is simply going after a less powerful company first, one with much smaller pockets than Google.
“It clearly involves some form of litigation strategy of picking off the weaker members of the herd first,” Mr Zittrain said. “They can always add Google to the suit later on.”
Here’s the problem. It’s one thing if you’re talking about property like, say, a bicycle. The government’s involved — cops & courts — but at least it’s pretty straight forward to decide if your bike’s been stolen from you. But once you start treating ideas as if they are property? Let the games begin! Now companies can try to beat competitors with lawyers instead of engineers.
After decades of players tweaking the economy’s rules around patents to stack the deck in their favor, MIT Prof. Eric Von Hippel sums up the end result:
“It’s a bad scene right now. The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation — that’s what society gets out of it,” he said. “The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out.”
I’m sure the government-hating Republicans will get right on it…
What’s particularly galling about Apple playing these bullshit games is that a lot of the core ideas of Apple’s first operating system came from another company — Xerox. If Xerox had protected its intellectual property many years ago the way Apple is doing it now, Apple wouldn’t exist. Or as Bill Gates supposedly said to Steve Jobs when Jobs accused him of stealing from Apple when Microsoft developed Windows:
Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.