Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Gates Giving

Bill Gates is retiring... So what?

From The Statesman

The market shrugged off Mr Bill Gates’ announcement that he would give up the commanding heights of Microsoft, the digital empire he co-founded with his friend Mr Paul Allen in 1975. Gates plans to focus on philanthropy, especially global health and education work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This is not the end for Mr Gates but another chapter in the life of a most creative mind who began, like most American innovators, in his garage with an idea and transformed the world. Yes, Mr Gates helped usher in the digital civilisation. But I wonder if Mr Gates could have risen to the top in any other country except the USA, a country that brings out the best in ordinary people like Mr Gates and transforms them into extraordinary humans through the competitive ethos of the marketplace.

In his introduction to Mr David Brown’s book, Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse, Mr James Burke, a London-based television producer, commended America’s “can-do” spirit and said that the “readiness to adapt to circumstance is one of America’s most enduring characteristics and is what makes the American social environment more amenable to innovation than any other...”

Henry Ford, for example, adapted a British Royal Navy-originated assembly-line idea of production and used it to usher in an era of “democracy of possessions”. Of course, the democracy of possessions also creates social and environmental problems that demand the application of new technology, thus, feeding the inventive-entrepreneurial spiral.

What makes a scientist more inventive and innovative in the USA than back in his native country might be puzzling to some of us, especially those who do not understand the ethos of American society. Consider the case of Mr Ashok Gadgil, one of the 35 inventors profiled in the book, whose invention of a drinking water purification system might save millions of people in developing countries where diarrhoea, cholera, hepatitis and water-borne diseases are widely prevalent. The “Bengal cholera” of 1992 that spread throughout India and killed approximately 10,000 people, challenged Mr Gadgil, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to develop an affordable and effective water purification system using ultraviolet light. Mr Gadgil’s device, the UV Waterworks, may not be an earth-shaking invention but it is extremely useful for the masses in India and other developing countries, where drinking water contamination is commonplace.

It sounds incredible but Mr Gadgil says in the book: “You could disinfect one person’s drinking supply for a full year for a couple of cents.” Could Mr Gadgil have developed this invention in India, a nation with a quotas-and-reservations mentality and a straightjacket bureaucracy? The USA is the most inventive and innovative nation today.

In 2005, US residents received 85,238 patents out of a total of 165,485 granted by the US Patent and Trademark office. Burke wrote in his book that scientists and inventors follow the two-fold rule propounded by the 17th century French rationalist philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes: Be a doubting Thomas and reduce every system to its fundamentals. You cannot sit in your bathtub and wait for “Eureka” to occur. Inventing is sweating all the way (Thomas Edison’s 99 per cent rule) until a new configuration, a new way of doing things surfaces like an irrepressible force, an answer to a prayer, when you say, yes, yes, indeed, one plus one is equal to 11.

During the last 70 years, job categories (teaching, journalism, road-building, etc.) have increased from 80 to 800 in the USA. With global e-commerce rising, the job marketplace will explode the world over and will demand massive inventiveness and innovations. What will happen to a nation that does not invent and innovate?

In his foreword to the book, Mr Lester Thurow, an MIT social scientist, wrote that most scientific and technological advances in human history have occurred slowly and sporadically in civilisations, often vanishing from the place of their origin. After the end of Roman civilisation, Europe plunged into the Dark Ages when technological leadership passed on to the Islamic world. China was more advanced in the 15th century than in the 19th century.

There are no guarantees that a nation’s technological lead will last forever. The restless and questioning spirit in Europe began with the re-invention of the moveable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century that unleashed simultaneously two forces, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which caused a tremendous upheaval in Europe and the rest of the world from the time of the discovery of America to that of the colonisation of Asia and Africa. One great invention led to another ~ the invention of steam engine led to electricity ~ and moved some countries to the rank of the first world and relegated many others to the third world.

But what has made scientific and technological innovation a sustainable enterprise in modern times, according to Prof Thurow, is the German idea that “systematic investments in research and development based upon academic science could lead to a much faster rate of technological progress.”

Universities have become the most important source of inventiveness and innovations in the USA and elsewhere. Great research universities, MIT, Stanford, Harvard and others, with abundant research funding resources, attract the best brains from all over the world and make the USA the most inventive and innovative society. That explains why the book celebrated Mr Gadgil as an American, not an Indian, inventor because the USA provides the socially supported scientific platform that India does not.

We know how German rocket scientists were persuaded after WWII to come to the USA to help beat the Soviet Union in the race into space. But Prof Thurow warns: “What has been gained can be lost.” Great Britain and Germany were the technological leaders since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago. So was China once, as were the Arabs.

What makes the USA so different from the past technological leaders is that it is culturally situated between the First Amendment freedoms and the awesome temptations of the open marketplace. The marketplace of goods and ideas, the Darwinian competitiveness, is fuelling the relentless pace of inventiveness and innovations in the USA which is the only place where a man like Bill Gates could rise.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Gate is not a big innovators at all. But he is a great follower abd a good businessman.

    He bought DOS from another company and sold the DOS to IBM copy by copy. By this he gained market.

    Then he "borrowed" the GUI concept that originated from XEROX and used by Apple. This enhenced his position in PC operating system.

    He followed netscape and then created his own Internet Explorer and Netscape was killed by M$.

    Now, he has his .net which he "borrowed" the OOS from C++ and Java. J2EE can do the all the same thing.

    Anything else?

    The author needs to do more research on M$ or Gates's history.