MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – FEBRUARY 02: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (R) and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt (L) walk around a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on February 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a fireside chat where he unveiled Beyond Traffic, a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that anticipates the trends and choices facing our transportation system over the next three decades. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Everybody talks about innovation these days, but the word is used so lightly. Every new app, gadget or product feature is now “innovation”. A few decades ago, “innovation” implied a life-changing advance in technology: the transistor, the computer, space flight. Does it mean anything that we speak of innovation more casually today than we did in the past century? Maybe.
In October, 2000, the US Congress mandated this goal: “by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned.” We haven’t reached that goal. Yes, it’s a tough goal, and yes, Google, Daimler, Mobileye and others are making progress on driverless cars. But still, we didn’t make the goal. It seems a pretty modest goal compared to putting a man on the moon, and we did that in less than nine years, with resources that look mighty primitive by today’s standards.
Space travel called for developing a mix of new technology: materials that could withstand tremendous variation in environmental conditions, compact, lightweight food, and a myriad of analytic applications for flightpath computations, meteorology, monitoring astronaut life functions and other uses. That’s a lot of data analysis, especially considering that the most powerful computers in the era of early manned space missions had only around 100 kilobytes of memory.
Analytics plays an equally important role in today’s technology development. Cars already have engines, tires, all the parts except automation. The driverless car is all about gathering and analyzing data to control the vehicle in a safe and efficient manner. Speaking recently at a meeting for University of Chicago Booth Big Data and Analytics Roundtable, Matthew Walter, Assistant Professor at Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, discussed his work developing an early driverless car, and explained that most of the considerable computing capability required for the car goes to analysis such as computing an appropriate path for the vehicle.
Because analytics is so important to automated driving, Google’s experience with significant advances in analytics applications such as web search and programmatic advertising may be key elements of its success with driverless vehicles. Still, other factors are in play.
Jon Gertner, in his book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, outlined three requirements for innovation as it was viewed at Bell Laboratories decades ago: market, technology research and manufacturing. So, to be an innovation, a new development had to leverage the latest scientific research, be feasible to manufacture in large quantity, and have clients ready and willing to buy. “If you hadn’t sold anything, you hadn’t innovated.” That tough standard was at the core of the culture that invented the transistor, the laser and digital signal processing.
POMONA, CA – JUNE 06: Human Robot Reserach Center Director JunHo Oh (R) congratulates fellow robotacist after leading his Team Kaist to victory in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge at the Fairplex June 6, 2015 in Pomona, California. Team Kaist from South Korea won first prize in the robotics challenge and took home $2 million. Organized by DARPA, the Pentagon’s science research group, 24 teams from aorund the world are competing for $3.5 million in prize money that will be awarded to the robots that best respond to natural and man-made disasters.