The Technology Challenge: How Can America Spark Private Innovation?

Vice President Al Gore

University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA
February 14, 1996

This week, I am delivering three speeches about America's technology challenges. On Monday, in Baltimore, I spoke to a collection of scientists, and asked: What is the role of science in American society? Yesterday, in Virginia, I asked: How must we update our notions of self-government to bring them into harmony with the Information Age?

And today, Valentines Day, here on the glorious Penn campus, I will complete this technology trilogy, and ask: How do we spark the innovation that creates jobs, builds businesses, and lifts lives?

To answer that question, I'll draw on a time-worn technique of your most annoying professors. I'll answer this question with another question.

Here it is: How did this happen? (Vice President displays Valentine's card)

Now, don't laugh. I'm going to give this to my wife Tipper when I get back to Washington.

But it's special for another reason, too. Later this morning, I will walk across campus to the Moore Building and turn the key on the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer -- the ENIAC, the world's first programmable computer, which is celebrating its 50th birthday.

That computer -- which stood ten feet tall, stretched 80 feet wide, and tipped the scales at 30 tons -- contains about as much computing power as my Valentine's Day card.

You know that powerful parallel computer that's playing chess against Gary Kasparov about 20 blocks from here? It can evaluate 40,000 chess moves in the same time it took ENIAC to add two numbers. Anybody here have a laptop computer? Your computer has more power than the combined power of all the computers in the world 50 years ago.

So again the question: How did this happen? How did the power that once spanned an entire room migrate to this tiny card you can buy for a few dollars at the stationery store?

There are several answers. The most important one perhaps is that we've got a lot of smart people in this country -- a lot of people like the ones who've graduated from Penn. They've sweated long nights in the laboratory -- repeating experiments, testing assumptions, collecting data -- and eventually they opened breathtaking avenues of possibility.

And these software writers and computer engineers joined up with the marketers and financiers to create real products that have made a difference in people's lives. Together, this duo propelled ideas out of the basement computer lab and into the living rooms and offices of America.

But there's another explanation for this extraordinary development -- this explosion of computing power and its migration to all corners of our life.

It's an explanation that may surprise you . . . an explanation not even computer science professors comprehend . . . an explanation some of you might never have heard before.

Bruce Springsteen.

Remember that song, "Dancin' in the Dark"? There are lines in that song that contain part of the answer to the puzzle of this card. The lines go like this: "You can't start a fire . . . You can't start a fire without a spark."

A key explanation for this Valentine's Day Card, for my cool wristwatch, for your red-hot laptops is that the federal government provided the initial spark that eventually flickered into these extraordinary products.

Back in 1943, the federal government provided a small amount of money to some of Penn's best engineers so they could develop an electronic machine that could perform a rather narrow task: calculating firing tables for artillery weapons. That was the birth of the ENIAC.

After the ENIAC was built, it was put to use performing millions of discrete calculations that were part of top-secret research on the hydrogen bomb. The ENIAC did that well, but before long the war ended.

At the time, there were some people who thought that the ENIAC and other computers could be used for other things -- maybe even for business.

The chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson, gushed: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Popular Mechanics, in a 1949 issue dedicated to the inexorable march of scientific progress, made an ever bolder prediction: "Computers in the future," the magazine said, "may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."

And so it went. Talented people gradually improved on what the ENIAC began. Computers got smaller, faster, smarter. And slowly but surely, fifty years later, I can display this card on a campus where a group of undergraduates have etched the ENIAC's instructions on a tiny sliver of silicon.

In the early days of the ENIAC, nobody knew where it would all lead. But these pioneers -- and this nation -- were committed to an idea that transcended any single destination: knowledge matters for its own sake; pursuing knowledge is something that America must do.

They heard the music, even if they didn't know the lyrics. You can't start a fire. You can't start a fire without a spark.

It's a similar tale with the Internet. Look at the cover of this week's Time Magazine. "The Golden Geeks. They invent. They start companies. And the stock market has made them instanaires."

Now, the Internet "instanaires" got where they are mainly through talent and tenacity. But it's unlikely they could have set the world ablaze had government not provided the initial spark.

In 1969, the federal government -- through the Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency -- created something called ARPANET. The Pentagon's goal was to develop a computer network that would allow military scientists and engineers to share expensive computers -- and to do it on a network that could withstand a nuclear attack. E-mail was a quirky -- but eventually useful -- afterthought.

Over the next decade, computer scientists at universities and federal labs began connecting to the ARPANET. A few thousand more people began using this new tool, but to the larger population it remained unknown.

Then in 1986, the National Science Foundation -- again, an agency of the federal government -- began what was called the NSFNET to expand the ARPANET to include not simply computer nerds, but all researchers at American universities. That led to the National Research and Education Network, or NREN, which I helped get off the ground. And that eventually led to the Internet -- the organic network of networks that today is bursting with new users, creating entirely new industries, and reshaping how we work and how we communicate.

The ARPANET creators could not have predicted what would happen to their brainchild. But, as always, they heard the music -- and now we all know the lyrics. You can't start a fire. You can't start a fire without a spark.

One more example. Time's poster boy is Marc Andreesen, a top official at Netscape. He's 24 years old. He's worth about $130 million dollars. Not bad. That's roughly $14,000 for every day he's been alive.

Marc got his start just a few years ago as part of the team that developed Mosaic, the first sophisticated browser for the World Wide Web -- and the breakthrough application that made the Web accessible to ordinary computer users.

Marc performed his work on Mosaic at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, a supercomputing center funded by . . . yes, the National Science Foundation.

And the funding for Mosaic itself came from the High-Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, a federal research and development program I helped pass into law while I was a Senator.

Of course, I had no idea at the time that this investment would lead to hundreds of thousands of home pages on everything from smashing atoms to the Smashing Pumpkins . . . from Albert Einstein to Jennifer Aniston. Nobody had any idea this investment would uncork an amazing fizz of T-shirt-to-riches stories. But that wasn't the point.

The point, as I'm sure you're understanding by now was this: You can't start a fire. You can't start a fire without a spark.

That's how it has worked in America. Government has supplied the initial flicker -- and individuals and companies have provided the creativity and innovation that kindled that spark into a blaze of progress and productivity that's the envy of the world.

For much of this century, Americans have benefited from this process -- this virtuous circle of science and success. As the nation generated wealth, a portion of that wealth was invested in research, science, and technology. Those investments helped solve tough problems -- and eventually spawned still greater wealth, which was then invested in still more research. On and on it went. Prosperity generated investment, investment generated answers, and answers generated further prosperity.

But now there are some in Washington who seem intent on snuffing out this spark with the largest cuts in science and technology and education in a generation.

In their most recent budget, the Congressional leadership proposed reducing federal funding for science and technology by one-third by the year 2002, adjusted for inflation. And get this: several years after the Cold War ended, defense R&D is going up, while civilian R&D is going down. More for Star Wars, less for environmental research. At the very moment global economic competition and global environmental degradation demand civilian research and the technologies it often produces, this Congress is proposing the sharpest cuts in nondefense research since America was fighting World War II.

The only investment the Congress wants to increase was in health sciences. And that's great. But in almost every other realm, they're approaching technology with all the wisdom of a potted plant.

This crowd talks like George Jetson. But they support policies more appropriate for Fred Flintstone. They promise to boldly go where no Congress has gone before. But their flight plan will take us straight into the ground. They sing tunes about moving America into a sunny future. But really . . . they're just dancing in the dark.

We can do better than that.

We can invest in new technologies -- not suffocate the fires of creativity in a crazy quilt of misguided savings.

We can invest in education technology and link our schools to the information superhighway -- not pull the plug on our classrooms and disconnect them from the world.

We can invest in student loans to open the doors of college to all our young people -- not shut the university gates to all but America's wealthiest families.

That's what President Clinton has been fighting for. Because he understands that the ENIAC changed not only how send valentines, but how we think about our world.

For years, much of our thinking was shaped by the metaphor of the factory. Our elementary schools were built according to the principles of the assembly line. Government's approach to the economy was to "tinker," to "shift gears," or to "step on the gas. And most of our businesses pursued the same Holy Grail: cranking out more and more of the same thing at lower and lower costs.

But the ENIAC -- and the revolution it ignited -- altered that. It changed our world, and demanded a new vocabulary to describe it.

Yet years after the change began, we're still standing on the floorboards of Industrial Age metaphors that are creaking with age, groaning under the weight of a new reality.

I think there's a better metaphor . . . a sturdier metaphor, more appropriate to our times. It's the metaphor of distributed intelligence.

In the beginning of the mainframe computer era, computers relied almost totally on huge central processing units surrounded by large fields of memory. The CPU would send out to the field of memory for raw information that needed to be processed, bring it back to the center, do the work, and then distribute the answer back into the field of memory. This technique performed certain tasks well -- especially those that benefited from a rigid hierarchy or that depended on the outer reaches only for rote tasks.

Then along came a new architecture called massive parallelism. This broke up the processing power into lots of tiny processors that were then distributed throughout the field of memory. When a problem was presented, all of the processors would begin working simultaneously, each performing its small part of the task, and sending its portion of the answer to be collated with the rest of the work that was going on. It turns out that for most problems, this approach -- the distributed intelligence approach -- is more effective.

But somehow this metaphor, and the idea it contains, never migrated into our public conversation or our common vocabulary -- even though it's profoundly re-ordered our lives.

Distributed intelligence offers a pretty coherent explanation for why democracy triumphed over governments that depended on all-powerful central processing units. And it helps explain why American businesses are pushing power, responsibility, and information away from the center -- and out to the salespeople, engineers, and suppliers who know the product best.

Here's a question that might prove my point. It's for the Penn students in the audience. How many of you, when you graduate, hope to climb the corporate ladder . . . rung after rung . . . same company . . . for the next 40 years? Let's see your hands. Or how many of you hope to maybe start your own business, move from project to project, or navigate whatever exciting webs of commerce present themselves?

The ladder is a factory metaphor -- one path, one destination, step by step. But the web is a distributed intelligence metaphor -- innumerable paths, unimaginable destinations, any route you choose.

Just look at the changes in our economy and our culture. Your parents probably read Life Magazine. So did the rest of the country. But now almost anyone can publish a magazine, and many are. At last count, there were as many as 50,000 'zines in America. Distributed intelligence.

Investment advice used to come from the gray-suited Wall Street expert -- font of all wisdom, source of all information. Now, investors are going online with services like the Motley Fool, comparing notes with thousands of other investors, building a pool of information far deeper than any experts have. And in the process, they're beating the pants off the big money crowd. Distributed intelligence.

So let me bring this full circle. Because of that clunky old machine in the Moore Building -- which required more than 17,000 vacuum tubes and drained enough electricity to light three houses for an entire year -- how we work has changed, how we organize ourselves has changed, how we think has changed. The ENIAC didn't accomplish that directly. And if all its inventors were here today, they would probably be astonished by what they wrought.

But the ENIAC -- funded by a small investment from Washington -- provided the spark . . . just as ARPANET helped sparked the Internet, and the High Performance Computing Initiative helped spark the World Wide Web.

Two days ago, Iowans cast their votes in party caucuses that signal the beginning of the 1996 elections. This is the last presidential election of the 20th century -- and the first presidential election of the distributed intelligence era.

Our choice is pretty clear. Do we snuff the spark that helps ignite innovation, new businesses, and better jobs? Or do we keep providing that spark -- and rely on the brains and sweat and vision of people like you to keep America's fires blazing?

You don't have to rely on distributed intelligence for that one, do you?

So, Happy Birthday, ENIAC. Happy Valentine's Day, Penn. Let's get to work.