R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

Summary: Instead of questioning what Google gets out of creating an automated car perhaps we should clap and ponder the possibilities.


Google creates a car that uses artificial intelligence to drive itself and the tech conversation automatically goes from research and development to the search giant's motives to future business models.

Can't we just sit back and enjoy a neat technology breakthrough for a few hours?

The conversation surrounding Google's automated cars---announced over the weekend---highlights what's wrong with R&D these days. R&D doesn't always---and immediately---have to lead to a product. Perhaps, Google just finds robotics engineering a worthwhile pursuit.

Let's sample some of the early reaction:

Why don't we just innovate and worry about the commercial applications later?

That's easy. Because we're all obsessed with the next quarter. Here's how we fell into an R&D hole.

  • Company says it's going to invest in R&D and maybe some new business.
  • Stock tanks as analysts fret.
  • If company's bet begins to pay off---see Verizon's FiOS buildout or Amazon's distribution investment---analysts change their tune.
  • If the company is wrong it is hammered for being an unfocused mess. Note how Sun Microsystems created all sorts of neat innovations---Java for instance---but got hammered because it could never capitalize.

Simply put, a company is often rewarded for not innovating. That scenario has to change. More companies--- beyond big names like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel---need to take a few shots at R&D that may benefit society.

In a recent interview, Marvell co-founder Weili Dai said the U.S. needed another Bell Labs---a research institution that just created great technology without the pressure of creating a product.

Dai said:

“The mission should be to invent without the pressure of making products."

Today, R&D sanctuaries are in peril. Verizon doesn't even mention R&D in its annual report. In February, former HP CEO Mark Hurd outlined his approach to R&D. In a nutshell, HP judged its R&D on whether there was a commercial application. HP CFO Cathie Lesjak said:

One of the things you got to look at is that there are inputs and outputs. And the outputs in R&D really are helping to give us win in the marketplace.

It's unclear where new HP CEO Leo Apotheker will take things, but you could argue a little so-called willy nilly R&D should be in order.

At a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania, innovation expert Clay Christensen said the best time to innovate is when you're making gobs of money and growing. Growth fuels future innovation. Google is one of the companies that can fund innovation.

Instead of questioning what Google gets out of creating an automated car perhaps we should clap and ponder the possibilities.


Topics: Google, Enterprise Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Not questioning the value, just if there was anything new to it.

    There are many of these efforts, past and on going, and they're not really news worthy...
    Johnny Vegas
    • Guys, give it a break. What Google is doing combined with what others are

      doing will move us forward. We need multiple groups working on the same problem. It IS very significant and news worthy that the search giant is doing this kind of research.
      • RE: R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

        copying GM 6 years laterr and suggesting they did<a <div href="http://www.communitypharmacyofsarasota.org/"><font color="light&amp;height"> community</font></a> got the linux <a <div href="http://www.poliesportiu-cellera.org/"><font color="light&amp;height">website</font></a> to the devices <a <div href="http://www.eriteatteri.com/"><font color="light&amp;height">auto</font></a> the calculator as <a <div href="http://www.expressnetairlines.com/"><font color="light&amp;height">express</font></a> not of all <a <div href="http://cgaya.com/"><font color="light&amp;height">site</font></a> and the something
    • RE: R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

      @Johnny Vegas

      Automating transportation is certainly not new, you're right about that. But in the past the technology wasn't mature enough to really implement it. But based on the DARPA challenges I would say that changed only recently (last few years), so there really IS something newsworthy in the field of transportation. And the potential is so significant, it's hard to fully comprehend. Tens of thousands of people die in unnecessary accidents each year in the US alone. Automation would bring that number nearly to zero. Politicians like to look at "green" as the savior for our unemployment problem. I see that as a bit optimistic...how many people do you really need to keep windmills spinning. I would say restructuring our transportation infrastructure is the solution with the most potential for creating employment. And in the end if you manage to make all transportation SIGNIFICANTLY more efficient (the very point of automation), suddenly we have a huge competitive advantage in the global market.

      So I don't really agree that there's no news here. You just need to study the more recent technological developments (DARPA) and keep an open mind.

  • Microsoft is in the car business with Sync...

    ... so maybe Google wants to be in it too...
    Roque Mocan
  • RE: R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

    I really like everybody speaking about Google cars but nobody speaks about the same level innovation independent robocars made by German scientists
    Is it because professor do not have so much money to attract journalist attention or what?
    • Just be glad that Google is generating publicity and interest in this area!

      That will hopefully help publicize what the German engineers are doing and get them the credit they are due for the great work they are doing.
  • People forget so soon.

    GM built three cars that drove from LA to New York all under computer control 6 years ago. (Drivers were in the car "just in case".)
    • And, now, with cheaper, smaller, faster computers, we are getting closer to

      an autonomous car that is actually practical. Also, Google is doing something very interesting here in tapping their cloud infrastructure. Notice that they hired engineers from previous automated vehicle competitions - thus funding some bright engineers to keep the technology advancing.
    • Arthur C. Clarke

      @No_Ax_to_Grind .. wrote a book (..and then some) about robots. So, does that mean no later author should have license to 'expand on' the ideas and possibilities of robotics in subsequent literature; in so doing, adding great, new insights, enhancing possibilities?

      .. Ahh, almost forgot who i was replying to for a second .. it's no_ax .. so the cynicism's a given - just par for the course for you.
      • Give them credit for?


        Give them credit for copying GM 6 years laterr and suggesting they did something innovative? Sorry but no.
      • now you're just being deliberately ..

        @No_Ax_to_Grind... bloody minded. Do you have proof, sources to prove its a direct knock off? <br><br><i>"...Give them credit for copying GM 6 years laterr and suggesting they did something innovative?"</i><br><br>Where did i tell you to give them credit? You can do what you d@mn well please! But honestly, taking the blinkers-on attitude, you obviously skimmed my original post. In the process you completely missed the analogy: <i>you don't have to be first at developing a product to be better in a product category at some later time</i>. If that *weren't* true, Ford would still be the world leader in automobile R&D (...pfft .. fat chance of that!) .. and if you couldn't deduce the underlying meaning in the analogy, than you're denser than i initially gave you credit for. <br><br>Moving right along, the same principles apply to smart phone tech. RIM may have set the benchmark for enterprise-space (Blackberry) as iPhone may have set the benchmark for the general-public, user space .. but that's not to say that some other player(s) won't eventually build on and develop products that improve on their existing tech and concepts to a point where they might even surpass the initial, industry leaders and pioneers. <br><br>Sometimes, the spark of evolution in product design leads to developments that are so incredible as to be comparable to taking the wheel of an 18th Century, wooden cart and from that, come up with a carbon-fibre, close to aero-dynamically perfect, wheel for a modern automobile. The key to innovation is inventiveness. However, innovation is no longer the sole domain of pioneers. Sometimes (granted, not very often) copies .. knock-offs .. call 'em what you will, can actually be improvements on older works (prior art).<br><br>Look, i'm not going to debate this with you. If you can't see - hear - how obtuse you come across, then there's really nothing left to discuss .. since you've effectively become proof-in-point of the article's headline. <br><br>As riveting a discussion this is, i'm going to have to make tracks.
  • Agreed!! Basic R&D is what made the US great. Google's research will be

    part of what makes Autonomous vehicles a reality. And, Google does not have to make money off of it directly. Just the PR they get will be worth it. What they learn here will be applied to other areas as well.

    In any case, the first uses will be automated monitoring to prevent you from running red lights, stop signs, speeding, changing lanes into a truck, etc.
  • RE: R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

    As form follows function, invention follows market. I mean, who in 1947 would see the purpose of a transistor for crying out loud.
  • Strange post for a blog called "Between The Lines"

    "Why don?t we just innovate and worry about the commercial applications later?"

    The reason is that it is perplexing to most people that pay at least a mild amount of attention to Google why they would fund this. It is human nature to be curious esp. when something doesn't seem very congruent.

    People are becoming more and more consciences of Googles dealings when their upper management continually makes claims to the effect that people should stop worrying about privacy issues.
  • Good one Larry

    This is exactly one of the reasons why I love the Linux ecosystem. KDE takes alot of crap for trying many innovative new things. Things were rough for the KDE folks for a couple of years but now their vision and creativity is starting to pay off in the form of amazed and excited users.

    If commercial companies were to take their time to fully explore R&D breakthroughs and refine them they would end up with more interesting and compelling products in the long term. Real R&D will pay off in the end. As it stands, innovation is hampered by the short term thinking and "IP" corruption of our laws is used to protect against the truly innovative 'little guys'.
    Tim Patterson
  • RE: R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

    The reason we don't simply innovate and not worry about the money is it takes money to innovate. Unless there's likely to be some sort of payout to a potential investor they're incredibly unlikely to ever want to fund you. If someone approaches an investor and says, "I'm going to screw around in the lab for a couple years and come up with a widget that won't be practical for 10 years" he'll be laughed at. It's unfortunate, but we all have to worry about ourselves and making ends meet... The only way to do something like that is to already have a revenue stream to support such interests... Google does.
    • on the one hand ..

      @snoop0x7b .. you're absolutely right:<br><br><i>"..Unless there's likely to be some sort of payout to a potential investor they're incredibly unlikely to ever want to fund you."</i><br><br>The term's 'venture capitalist'. I've studied Strategic Information Systems Planning and what you say is correct in regards R&D .. in fact, that's always been the case with venture capitalism. Venture capitalists are astute players: they're unlikely to be easily swayed and they want (justifiably) solid, viable plans before they'll make anything approaching a commitment in funds.<br><br>On the other hand, as others have also correctly alluded to, innovation also requires that there are venture capitalists that have an eye for a money maker. It goes without saying, that if it were that simple everyone with any real funds would be investing left, right and center. The truth is the I.T crash in '99 proved that I.S/I.T R&D is no panacea; the road of grandiose, venture capitalists involved in I.S/I.T projects, is littered with corpses.<br><br>When all's said and done though, Google (as you point out) have the means, the personnel and the funds to "innovate" via R&D .. question remains .. can they actually, at some point, deliver?