Technology’s Virtuous Cycle
Where does useful technology come from? It is commonly assumed that requirements resulting from demands in the market drive the development of new technologies. However, fundamental changes in markets appear to operate the other way around. That is, technologies drive markets. New economic growth depends on technology that depends on commitment to fundamental research. Sometimes applied technology is developed from fundamental research unexpectedly, like e-mail deriving from research in packet-switched computer communications. But only to the outsider does it seem to happen miraculously. For in fact every advance in technology stands on the shoulders of prior scientific and technological giants.
“Where does open source software come from? Doesn’t it typically start off as scratching just a local itch?”
Open source software also depends on an innovative and healthy technology base. On prior art, as it were. Even growth in services markets, as seen in the services industry surrounding open source software, depends on advancements in the underlying technologies. For example, without the progress and maturation of Linux and other open source technologies including the Internet, billion-dollar service industries like Google would be impossible.
But how is open source software related to fundamental research? Where does open source software come from? Doesn’t it typically start off as scratching just a local itch? Indeed it is often observed that one of the poster children of OSS, Linux, was just Linus Torvalds’ effort to solve his own need for a capable computer workstation environment. But, as in the case of many significant open source projects, this may be just another form of urban myth. Linux as an idea has a far longer heritage. Indeed, Linux emerged from an intellectual context that included commercial Unix as well as government sponsored standards, most notably POSIX. Unix itself was inspired by an earlier operating system research project called Multics which was part of MIT Project MAC. And this was initially sponsored by DoD’s main research incubator, ARPA. Without ARPA’s involvement, it is unlikely that there would ever have been the multi-billion dollar Unix or Linux market of today. A similar path, starting from government funded basic computer communications research, can be traced for the Internet and the World Wide Web.
So government policy toward and investment in basic research is vital to developing the infrastructure upon which useful and commercial technologies can be built.
An important follow up question becomes, what is the government’s role after the infrastructure is in place? In many ways the history of the commercialization of projects like Unix and the Internet involves government stepping away from continued support for the specific projects it started. Yet often the organizations through which the projects were started are still being fully supported even if specific projects like Multics or the Arpanet have died or moved on. You would not be surprised to learn that today Project Mac is none other than the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. It is still being heavily supported by ARPA (now called DARPA) as well as by many other government and industry sponsors. It is here that Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor directs the W3C and works on research and collaboration leading to the next generation of the Web.
Similarly, while Linux development is focused through the work and stewardship of Linux Torvalds, the government plays a role in the development of its current capabilities. For example, DoD’s National Security Agency built a high grade security prototype called SELinux. The latest versions of SELinux have been integrated into the official 2.6 kernel. SELinux powered Linux has earned security certifications on par with the best competing proprietary operating systems.
In summary, successful government technology initiatives try to set up the conditions, particularly through support of basic research, for a virtuous cycle of cooperation and collaboration between government, industry and academia. The primary objective at this stage is to launch collaborative projects that promote technology leadership. The next phase involves continuing government support, often for applied R&D that sustains the virtuous cycle of collaboration to maintain competitive edge and technology leadership. Sustaining support leads to a refinement of technology capabilities and the promise of continued economic prosperity.