Why the future of Facebook and Google depend on academia

Colors of your future alma mater?
Colors of your future alma mater?
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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This week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg joined the highly prestigious Neural Information Processing Systems academic conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. At the event, he announced Facebook’s artificial intelligence laboratory headed by Professor Yann LeCun of NYU and some of the world’s leading deep learning and machine-learning scientists. Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout, visiting a highly prestigious academic conference was a shock for the academic world but it’s also part of a larger shift.

On the surface, new tech businesses spearheaded by passionate entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg look like a new force for social change, instead of universities. But those entrepreneurs still need substantial research developed over long years including “unfettered research,” as term used by Andrew Odlyzko, a Bell Labs researcher, to signify research not targeting a product or a service to sell.

Universities, traditionally at the forefront of new ideas and technology, are seeing academics migrate to the private sector and startups. Because of constraints in funding, one in five scientists consider leaving US, according to a study by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. For sure, companies and startups with abundant resources are serious career options. For people like Terran Lane, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Computer Science who recently joined Google, academics believe this is where they can have a better chance to create a positive impact.

“Publish or perish” has become a mantra in many universities. In a recent interview for the Guardian, Nobel laureate Peter Higgs (of the eponymous particle) said, “I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system.” Higgs doubted a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s university culture, because of the expectations for professors to keep churning out papers.The entire academic measuring system is predicated on the number of papers published and in which journals papers appear. Academics also face serious problems with publishers that cherry-pick papers and have even started a boycott, later dubbed “the academic spring” by the Economist.

If that wasn’t enough, academics face a status quo, the reward of mediocrity, discouragement of potentially high-impact and interdisciplinary work, and the corporatization of universities, especially in the US. Any one of these factors is a barrier to breakthrough innovation in any research environment.

If if not academia, where will breakthroughs be made? One place to look is the Google X, a research lab that has developed driverless cars and the infamous Google Glass. It makes Google as much a player in the tech research world as any traditional academic environment.

In the Guardian, Michael Mace sheds light on why Google is leading the way:

“Google doesn’t seem to respond to the rules and logic used by the rest of the business world. It passes up what look like obvious opportunities, invests heavily in things that look like black holes, and proudly announces product cancellations that the rest of us would view as an embarrassment… I think most reporters and analysts don’t understand how fundamentally different the engineering mindset is from traditional business thinking. It’s a very distinct paradigm, unfamiliar to most people who haven’t studied science … By announcing its terminated experiments, I think Google isn’t admitting failure, it’s proudly demonstrating that scientific principles are in use.”

Google’s research budget in 2012 was $6 billion alone, almost 10% of the entire spend by academia in the US across all disciplines. Total US private industry R&D spending was $279.6 billion, double that of the US federal government. Google is not the only tech company pouring money into research and is by far not the biggest investor. Samsung, Microsoft and IBM outlay even more.

These figures suggest engineering has found new channels of research—at least for certain types of research related with these companies’ short-term goals—outside the traditional university. However, there is still a need for universities for this unfettered research. Let’s not forget that almost everyone working in R&D today went to college.

The industry had a trial of financing unfettered research with Bell Labs as an example. As Christopher Byron noted in a 1982 issue of Time magazine: Bell Labs and AT&T had “never really had to sell anything.” And when they had tried—as was the case with the Picturephone, a visual communications device introduced in the late 1960s—they failed.

“In American and European industry, the prospects for a return to unfettered research in the near future are slim. The trend is towards concentration on narrow market segments,” says Andrew Odlyzko, a Ball Labs researcher.

As Jon Gertner concludes in “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation: 

“… it had become difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, for a company to capture the value of a big breakthrough… To put it darkly, the future was a matter of short-term thinking rather than long-term thinking. In business, progress would not be won through a stupendous leap or advance; it would be won through a continuous series of short sprints, all run within a narrow track.”

Design is another discipline that has become crucial for technology because of the human-centric need for breakthrough innovation, as I mentioned in my recent Quartz article. Therefore, a recent move of John Maeda from Rhode Island School of Design to join design-focused venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins as a design partner in Silicon Valley was another inevitable move from academia to private industry.

Design-driven startups or research-based companies are leading transformational players because of their relative free-decision making environments and ready cash. And venture capitalists are the controlling point of the startup world. In the US, venture-capital investments were $35 billion in 2011 and $29.7 billion in 2012, according to professional services company Ernst & Young. These figures total almost half of academia’s entire research budget in the US. Positioning design and art together with technology via these players can create change if supported by “unfettered research.”

As Steve Jobs said: “The people who built Silicon Valley were engineers. They learned business, they learned a lot of different things, but they had a real belief that humans, if they worked hard with other creative, smart people, could solve most of humankind’s problems. I believe that very much.” So do we but with support of “unfettered research.” Perhaps companies like Google and Facebook can support universities as well for the sake of their future.