June 5th, 2011
02:22 PM ET

Polymath inventor fears for America's innovation future

Here's a transcript of my chat with Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft and polymath inventor, on innovation:

Fareed Zakaria: One of the things you've talked about is when we talk about nuclear power, you keep talking about, well, the Chinese are doing this. The South Koreans are doing this. They're actually doing better than we are in many areas. How worried are you that the United States is no longer going to be the place that invents the future? 

Nathan Myhrvold: I'm very worried. You know, current course and speed, we're very good at inventing, but we're also undermining our ability to do that in lots of ways. In the case of nuclear, we decided as a nation to stop building nuclear plants 30 years ago. Pretty hard to have good innovation on new plants if you stop building them.

And what about in other technologies? 

The trouble is when you get successful, it's easy to get fat, dumb and happy and lazy about things. And, unfortunately, as a nation, we often tended to do that.

China recently announced that it's going on a big policy push to file more patents and have the strongest patent system and the largest number of patents in the world. While they're getting serious, we tend to fiddle while Rome burns.

Do you worry about funding for basic research and science?

Absolutely. A lot of the prosperity that the United States got in the tech sector was due to fundamental investments that DARPA and other government agencies made through the '60s, '70s and '80s. They're not making the same kinds of investments now.

Read: Fareed Zakaria's TIME article, The Future of Innovation: Can America Keep Pace?

In part, we say, "Hey, the industry is there; industry will take care of it." But while industry can take care of a class of things, really basic fundamental research still has to come from the government.

You know, one that's striking me historically is the United States became the world's inventor at a stage when we were a developing country. The 19th Century - America was primarily an agricultural nation, starting to move into heavy industry.

But even by 1850, we had invented things like the telegraph and the cotton gin. Thomas Edison came and invented tons of other things. We became the world's inventor and we were the equivalent of Brazil today. And if you think about that, that's a very remarkable transition.

Watch: A special GPS show "Restoring the American Dream: How to Innovate" Sunday 8pm ET/PT.

So we've got the spirit. We have the ability to do it. You just got to make sure the government and policies and other things don't get in the way of it. And if we can manage to not get lazy, I think we can play a very important role as the world's inventors for a long time to come.

There's a combination of innovation,  change, thoughtfulness and risk taking that's been unique here. It wouldn't be unique forever and we can't be cavalier about that.

Explore: The Global Public Square's "Global Innovation Showcase".

Post by:
Topics: Economy • Ideas • Innovation • United States

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Hawthorne Abendsen

    Perhaps Fareed should have asked Mr. Myhrvold what he thinks the impact of "patent trolls" are having on innovation? Firms such as Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, have been buying up patents for the express purpose of "shaking down" the tech industry in order to avoid litigation.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Jim

    I enjoyed the interview and discussion. However, why didn't you include the entire interview? I specifically wanted to see the dialogue about nuclear plant technology.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  3. balti667

    I wish that the private sector would remember how some of the higher-risk, fundamental, basic esearch that Myhrvold alludes to, was paid for ("financed") when it considers how the larger players have avoided paying taxes at every step of the way, have lobbied for legislation that exempts its members from paying taxes. (Profits are shifted to overseas subsidiaries; losses stay at home.) And so on. It's not just "the big bad corporations," but also stockholders voting with their wallets and feet who demand highest returns and thereby push corporations benefitting from government-funded research, to bite the hand that fed them.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  4. Tor Persson

    Innovations are created by innovators, which is an aptitude just like a mathematician or a carpenter and does not require a PhD not to say that PhDs are not creative. The September 30, 1985 issue of International BusinessWeek includes an article about creative individuals. If you cannot find a copy I have one and saved it as it made me realize my aptitude. It also explains the not so complimentary aspects of being creative, which has assisted me in being aware of such aspect. A creative aptitude is synonymous with having an intellect meaning the ability of creating original thoughts. I will use the term innovator in the rest of this message.
    I understand that your next program will deal with education and I would like to suggest that all levels of our education system should recognize that it needs to include the science of innovation and commercialization of the same. I.e. the carpenter needs to be given the opportunity to commercialize an innovation without having to study for a PhD. The BusinessWeek article claims that creativity can be taught but I represent that it requires the student needs to have the aptitude of an innovator.
    Innovators are often misunderstood and not properly awarded in the job market as they have to convince their colleagues of innovative solutions and they do not have the capability to understand “wild ideas” as they are not innovators.
    Some industries such as the offshore oil and gas industry is very conservative and often discourage innovations. Some entities in that industry have a policy of not using innovations because they have not been used before. This limits progress through a too few progressive entities.
    As a summary my suggestions are:
    -Recognize that innovator is a distinct aptitude equal to others
    -Provide innovation curriculums at all levels of the educational system
    -Provide mentoring support to innovators as they are lesser entrepreneurs
    -Provide unconditional seed funds for the development and commercializing of innovations
    -Educate industry leaders as a continuation of the mentioned BusinessWeek article including understanding the not so complimentary aspects of an innovator, which may have to be considered a price to pay
    -Encourage employers to reward innovative thinking in parallel to other employee evaluation criteria

    June 5, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • freetosail

      Totally agree and looking forward to see the suggestions going to be implemented. If we like to see more innovation coming out of this country, an innovation platform need to be available. As mentioned in the program about how Sweden provide name and office for the innovation center, we need to start providing at least those info. Then we will need to find a straight forward, easy to reach office or place where the inventors / innovetors can come and brain storm their idea . Also, have a place where thier idea can be safely explore and safely fail if it need to be. To move forward toward something bigger and more mature to finally materialize with a solid invention that fully supported publicly or privately. THe inventors need full support to explore where responsibility on funding and administrative solution are not their burden. Inventors exist in every level in society and ages, includes kids, teenagers, women, men, young or old adults. I really can't wait to see these opportunity available within our democracy . The inventors are around and buzziing while agitating to produce and explode with new ideas... We need an Inventor Platform...

      June 12, 2011 at 4:46 am |
  5. Banker

    Another issue unaddressed is the fact that the financial industry has absorbed the top minds graduating from almost every field, science, medicine, law and engineering. Few of the engineers I know actually went into engineering, they all became bankers after graudation.The only significant engineering we've had in this country for the past 2 decades is "financial innovation", which has given us nothing more than virtual magic beans in the form of derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, re-packaged products and services and a bloated, over-compensated financial sector.

    I am in full agreement that education is a cornerstone of innovation, but it is incentives that drive human behavior at the end of the day. And when you have a Wall St. "Winner-takes-all" economic system that has gone unchanged even after the 2008 crisis, my concern is that America's top minds continue to be applied towards financial activity, not productive, economic activity.

    June 6, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      You are right! Money and prestige are the main criteria on the graduates' mind, when they choose a profession. Bankers are overpaid and ironically rewarded for the mistakes they made. No wonder the public is irate that the government bailing some banks out. The engineering field could thrive, if the government would help finance big infrastructural projects.

      June 6, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • CitizenJP

      This is exactly what President Obama had hit in his first state of the union speech. We need to make tangible product producing engineering field more lucrative than fictitious financial products such as derivatives. Our best talents unfortunately are not engaged in science and egineering but more in medicine, law, and finance, none of which require top notch mathematics. So our best mathematical brains are going into fields that require elementary school mathematics; this is a great shame! As a result of this talent shift, we have been successful in keeping one alive almost for ever with zero quality of life; we have been successful in creative fictitious wealth in the wall street by cooking our books; and we have been successful in diverting much of our wealth to our litigators, by definition half of whom are plainly lying as only one side must be speaking the truth. As a nation we have not valued the talent that tangibly contributes to an improved quality of life, our engineering talent. Nations such as China and India are putting more emphasis on their engineering talent, which will be ruling the world of the 21st century.

      June 6, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  6. David Orr

    Once again, Fareed Zakaria has demonstrated his extreme bias toward nuclear power. It's OK to offer your opinion but you ought to make it clear that that's what you're doing! At the very least you should acknowledge that there are reasonable alternative paths forward. To wit, Fareed started out his interview (which part was not included in the transcript provided here) stating that Germany has announced they will phase out nuclear power, then he pointedly failed to articulate any of the rational bases for this decision, choosing instead to paint a picture of Germans as hysterical reactionaries. This is quite unfair, both to Germany and to viewers who don't follow closely these policy issues. Why, I wonder, does someone like Fareed, who holds himself out as an expert on governmental policy-making in general and in this case apparently as an expert on nuclear power/electrical supply policy, would he give such short shrift to an opposing view that is held so widely, including by many experts who work in those fields? And to add some insult to that injury, Fareed seemed so eager to put words in the guest's mouth that he hastened to point out–TWICE– that "not one person has died from the radiation," a frequently touted line straight from the nuclear power industy's P.R. machine that purports to prove the system is safe while diverting attention from the valid points opponents make but which are ALWAYS ignored by biased media personalities like Mr. Zakaria.

    Shame on Fareed and Shame on CNN for allowing this one-sided campaign to continue. How about some fairness, for a change?

    June 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Wasabiwahabi

    "Fairness" is part of neither Zakaria's nor CNN's vocabulary. These opinions, masquerading as fact, are Zakaria's effort to prove that one can fool some of the people all of the time.

    June 7, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  8. guest


    We Killin It – Barton Block

    "Like" us on facebook

    @ http://www.facebook.com/bartonblock

    June 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  9. James

    I agree with what he says, the United States takes too much of its past success for granted now. Failure to acknowledge that things are getting worse will lead to it's downfall. Everything that can be obtained can also be taken away – wealth, comfort, prosperity can disappear if the things that created that are neglected.

    Think about what the U.S. was like 100 years ago, and what was done to make it what it is now. Now think about what's being done now to maintain the position. Politicians are too concerned about what everyone else is doing in other countries, and they don't pay enough attention to their peoples problems, which add up and turn into huge national crises.

    It's a pandemic of dumb couch potatoes spending all day not really earning a wage that reflects their contribution to society, then spending too much of their free time watching tv and consuming goods. These people can't do anything about it because the system they are in is so rigid and oppressive. It's up to the government to change it, but they are too busy trying to please the masses of couch potatoes, and invade other countries, so they aren't going to do anything either...

    June 10, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  10. WHM

    I bet there are a bunch of people out there who have a light bulb ideas but who can not finance thier garage ideas. Thomas Edison tryed 1,500 materials before he patented the light bulb.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  11. Pradeep Desai

    It is not that America is not innovating enough, it is just that ohers are catching up on innovations. Becoming self-sufficient and gain respectability drives innovation for many of us.

    June 15, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  12. Led tv for sale

    http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/buy tv http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/Led tv for sale http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/Plasma TVs http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/wholesale tv supplier http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/all the best tv http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/brand tv for sale http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/where to buy tv http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/buy led online
    Led tv for sale http://www.wholesaletvonline.com/

    November 28, 2013 at 3:44 am |
  13. Cheap Nike Air Max Lebron

    Tammy this a wonderful blog submit! It is so nice when persons appreciate all that you do.
    Cheap Nike Air Max Lebron http://agatrenton.com/jim/Cheap-Nike-Air-Max-Lebron-273.cfm

    September 30, 2014 at 5:17 pm |
  14. detectives privados extremadura

    detectives privados san javier


    December 11, 2020 at 8:47 pm |
  15. earn passive income fast

    Imagine getting hundreds of people flooding your inbox on autopilot, 24/7. Cutting-edge funnel-based app that can generate 100 commissions of up to 900+ dollars DAILY. More details: Click in link in profile


    December 26, 2020 at 9:08 am |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.