The featured speaker this morning at the Pacific Science Center‘s Foundations of Science breakfast in Seattle was Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive, scientist and high-tech chef whose Intellectual Ventures is one of the biggest players in the controversial world of technology patent licensing.
“Intellectual property is actually more important to big companies every day, and I think that actually is vindication,” he said in response to a question about scrutiny of his company, including a This American Life investigation.
That was among a variety of topics discussed by Myhrvold in an on-stage conversation with Hanson Hosein, the director of the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. Continue reading for highlights.
On the energy problem and the need for miracles: The technology industry is in the miracle business. If you look at the cell phones we all have, if you look at the technology that we use in our everyday life, it’s a damned miracle. … Well, in energy, we need some miracles. The problem is that the energy industry is not one that’s prone to energy innovation. The total amount of R&D effort that goes into great new R&D in energy is tiny compared to the size of the energy problem. If you looked at the size of the cell phone market vs. the amount of R&D of people trying to do cool things in cell phones, it’s way better than it is in energy even though for society, (energy) is a much more important problem.
On the nature of being an inventor: Breakthroughs take a while. When you’re in the miracle business, you have to fail a lot. And so, although I’m in the miracle business, I’m even more in the failure business. It’s got to be OK to fail. It’s actually one of the things that makes U.S. business strong. Silicon Valley, that whole cluster of entrepreneurship. There’s lots of great entrepreneurs who failed their first and second time out in a whole variety of ways. That’s OK. … If you want to always be successful don’t try to be an inventor. … You know, Lewis & Clark had a terrible trip. … If you are an explorer, you are lost and confused and failing much more often than you are succeeding. And you’ve got to be OK with that.
On the criticisms of his patent licensing programs: Not only do you have to be willing to fail, you have to be willing for people to ridicule you and call you names. And most great endeavors have exactly that. … When you change the status quo, people get upset, and there are very powerful vested interests that feel threatened by the idea of people who will just go an invent a lot of new stuff, and ask you to pay for it. Here’s the interesting thing: When we started Intellectual Ventures, it was even more true that there was all of this, and big technology companies were publicly saying, patents are terrible … If you look today, some of the most active litigants are big tech companies. Apple is out there very actively trying to protect the iPhone. … Intellectual property is actually more important to big companies every day, and I think that actually is vindication.
On his aspirations for making an impact: It’s possible that of all of our thousands of patents, very few of those are miracles, but if we can succeed with our nuclear reactor, if we can succeed with some of the inventions — we have a whole program where we invent new technology for people in the developing world. If we can succeed at any one of those things even a little bit, we’ll have enormous impact, and I think that’s more than worth it.
On shortfalls in science, math and engineering education: As a society, if you don’t invest in education well enough, you foreclose a lot of options for your citizens. It’s embarrassing that Washington state ranks so low not only in the nation, but overall we’re ranking lower in the world. … If I look at Seattle as a community, or I look at the country, either way, higher education, we still have the best graduate schools in the world. The University of Washington is a fantastic school in lots and lots of science and math areas. … The real tragedy of the United States is not at the highest level. It’s also not whether there are jobs for people (in science and technology). … The problem is in the earliest stages of education, where we do a systematically poor job, across the board regardless of socioeconomic situation, but especially bad in the disadvantaged parts of the community.
On the value of cooking for teaching science: Cooking is the only science experiment most people perform. And it’s not always an experiment that succeeds, as we all know. I think cooking is a great opportunity to connect people with science, and it’s a great opportunity to say, hey, here are some things you can try at home, simple things. Cooking is a terrific way to engage people with science.