Keynote before the Executive Forum of the SPIE – International Society for Optical Engineering Defense & Security Symposium
Let’s begin with a thought experiment, and then a modest proposal. Imagine that tomorrow we could have Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman join us – two of the greatest physicists of all time whose work book-ended the 20th century with quantum theory. Neither man requires an introduction to this audience, but for the record it was Einstein who, almost exactly a century ago, introduced the idea of a “quanta of light,” the photon, for which he received his Noble Prize. And while Feynman is popularly credited with giving birth to the idea of nanotechnology, he received the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum theory. Imagine strolling with these two intellectual giants past the 400-plus technology companies at this year’s Society for Optical Engineering Exhibition.
It hardly bears noting that both would have intuitively grasped the physics underlying the inventions we see sprawling across the Exhibit halls here. But I suspect they would nonetheless have been amazed. In fact, if they could report to their contemporaries what they saw, it would create quite a buzz. They would understand that what these engineers and entrepreneurs have done is to create an entire new class of technologies. I also suspect they would not have seen what’s on the Exhibit floor as “optical” engineering. They would have seen this enterprise as anchored in the phenomenon of quanta – photons – more like “quantum engineering.”
Even the vaunted National Academy of Sciences was stuck in the old naming paradigm when they issued, at the tail end of the 20th Century, their 1998 seminal report titled “Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century.” The subtitle was fine. The title should have been Harnessing Quanta, or Harnessing Quantum Phenomenon.
The word “optics” is so redolent of the 17th and 18th century, of Galileo and Fresnel, not Einstein and Feynman, evoking images of hand-ground lenses and shinny brass telescopes and microscopes. To be sure, the foundational optics are still relevant, but look around this conference and you see everything from quantum dots, to heterojunction semiconductor lasers, from photonic crystals, to erbium fiber lasers, from fluorescing polymers to organic emitters, from quantum wells to infrared microbolometers, from Raman spectrometers to quantum cascade lasers. It is not a list that most people outside this room would understand, much less recognize as optics.
All this suggests a modest proposal. The domain of entrepreneurship and business opportunity anchored in what we engineers and physicists quaintly call optical engineering needs a better name in the public, business and media markets. Names evoke ideas, and ideas matter. Ideas create excitement, a “buzz.” And for better or worse, buzz matters in the modern world. From Wall Street to Capitol Hill, from Silicon Valley to the Back Bay, a buzz about ideas energizes people. Consider the examples of the expansive and sloppily-defined domains of microtechnology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. That these fields occupy various kinds of electric, chemical, mechanical, fluid or biological engineering is about as exciting as, well, “optical engineering.” Which is just the point, and the suggestion.
The point of course is that the broad domain of technologies employing photons, quantum phenomenon, should be called something like Quantum Technology.
To be sure Quantum Technology encompasses a lot of applications, from military and security, to medical and communications, from industrial to consumer products. This is no different than the other technology domains that excite a buzz. But engineering anchored in quantum phenomenon enables another – to use the hackneyed but now appropriate phrase – quantum leap in capabilities and opportunity. Quantum Technologies in fact have scale and scope that will exceed and overlap with the other domains around which a flock of new companies have been created, and much money made.
By the way, the optical engineers can certainly keep the name of their professional Optics society, as has the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and others. It’s not the profession we’re proposing to tinker with. In fact all of the engineering professions are involved in and impacted by quantum phenomenon – which in itself is remarkable. What we need is a description of this new enterprise that properly reflects the technological diversity and fecundity of this conference.
Some might be tempted to call the field of endeavor here something semantically derivative from the “micro” and “nano” prefixes; perhaps femto-technology. But the magic of photons is not just in the scale, though that can be important, but in the quantum nature of light. As just one example, the optical gyroscope, invented 25 years ago by Stanford physicist John Shaw, is not necessarily about things “micro” or “nano,” using small tools, or building at small dimensions. It uses photonic phenomenology to replace mechanical gyroscopes. This is a very weird thing that we already take for granted. Photonic devices can replace other mechanical and thermal tools from cutting to welding, and replace electronics for storing, transmitting or even processing information, and replace chemicals in sensing domains – to name but a very few examples.
Pivots in history are obvious in hindsight, though harder to discern during the event. Historians already see the frameworks of Einstein and Feynman, and their colleagues, as pivots in the scientific underpinnings of Quantum Physics. But it has taken quite some time to go from that science, to reach a point when we might mark a pivot when real businesses emerge with hardware, products and engineering, and where we begin the ramp up the proverbial ‘hockey-stick’ growth curves that revolutionize entire sectors of an economy. The most immediately relevant sectors of the economy are of course epitomized by the very title of this conference; the sectors of Homeland Security and the comparable military Force Protection. The operational and business relevance here is that many of the key tactical imperatives for security and force protection are addressable in large measure only with the capabilities of Quantum Technologies.
The timelines over which technologies move from ideas to industries are dictated by barriers and challenges largely unchanged over a century of modern history. Sometimes political and business paradigms have to change. Recognizing the point where we reside in these timelines determines much about the success of both government and private investments in new technologies. History is instructive in this regard.
The future of radio frequency technologies was written in 1861 when James Clerk Maxwell committed to paper his equations on electromagnetics. But it took a full 40 years before a tinkerer named Marconi had a radio, and then another 22 years, when in 1923, before an engineer invented the radar. By the way, that particular engineer, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, was curiously enough, a direct descendant of James Watt. Many a business-school graph of emerging technologies starts with the growth curve from the 1901 invention of radio to its ubiquitous use. The radar’s trajectory is similar, if less widely known, and in some respects more relevant to today’s Quantum Technologies.
The first use of radar to detect enemy aircraft took place 16 years after Watt’s invention, in September, 1939, mere minutes after Britain declared war. It was, as is too often the case, an ignominious first use of a new technology, and kindly forgotten in most histories. In charge of Britain’s air defense radar system was one Air Marshal Dowding. When the radars detected enemy aircraft on September 3, 1939, British fighters were scrambled, only to shortly discover that the aircraft subsequently shot down were in fact Britain’s own. The engineers had failed to recognize and develop the directional aspect of radar. They had alarmed and scrambled in response to British aircraft taking off on the mainland, not inbound German aircraft over the English Channel. It was an embarrassing and tragic discovery, quickly rectified. But, this type of glitch is typical of the deployment of new defense technologies to this day. Determining when a technology is ready for prime time is the bane of any end-user, most particularly in defense and security circles.
As an aside, coincidentally, Air Marshal Dowding was also a chastened pioneer in an earlier application of RF technology. He was the first person in the world to communicate by radio from an aircraft to a ground station, in 1915. The Air Marshal’s experience was quite similar to that of many tech-favoring general officers in today’s military. In attempting to institute radio communication with aircraft used for surveillance during World War I, the British War office concluded that Dowding’s “radio-telephone communications between air and ground was not practical” and cancelled the program.
The time-lines in other, now ubiquitous, historic technologies are similar. Charles Babbage’s 1830 idea of digital computing took a long time to move from concept, to nascent technology, to an industry. We know when the turning point was obvious, and it wasn’t after the first transistor appeared at the Bell Labs; it was several decades later with the advent of the Apple computer – it took longer yet for battlefield computers to enter the paradigm shift. So today there is a vast global industry epitomized by the proliferation of steel-mill-sized micro-technology fabrication manufacturing plants.
The light emitting diode (LED), and the constellation of its quantum brethren, are part of the Quantum Technology revolution. From Holonyaks’ 1962 invention of the LED to its use in streetlights and automotive headlights took 40 years. It seems clear in the Exhibit halls here, though, that we have reached the tipping point, the knee in the hockey stick, not for just for LEDs and a few other photonic technologies, but for hundreds of applications of quantum phenomenon. But, more than the mere existence of technology possibilities is needed to fuel all revolution.
In business terms – one needs market pull, not just technology push. When there are complementary paradigm shifts, fuel is added to the fire. Quantum Technology is coming of age at the same time as two other broad paradigm shifts; one is rooted in a change in the character of innovation and entrepreneurship, the other is anchored in geopolitics.
Al Qaeda’s most successful strike in September 2001 brought America to the end of a 12 year run of enjoying the fruits of the so-called, and myopically named, “peace dividend.” 9/11 caught America still locked in the technology-policy strategies forged in a Cold War paradigm.
The threats we face today are amorphous, constantly shifting, unevenly distributed and have no epicenter. This is the inverse of the Cold War conflict. Back then, our defenders built big machines and tools suitable for nation-state mega-conflicts, while security forces – spies and intelligence teams – sought to head off the use of the same.
While we have emerged from the Cold War threat paradigm, one still hears from some quarters Cold War era tech proposals, that we need a Manhattan Project, or Apollo-type program to create new technologies for homeland security and military force protection. These models are a mistake. They are based on both the wrong threat, and the wrong innovation paradigm.
Consider the technological archetype for state-of-the-art defense technology in the Cold War; the Distant Early Warning system, the DEW line. The DEW line was initiated in 1952 by President Harry Truman, based on the still relatively new radar technology. Huge radar stations were strung along Arctic latitudes to form a sensor field watching for ballistic missiles or strategic bombers. A big threat required a big solution from big, innovative, companies and laboratories. The DEW, incidentally, ignited fierce debate in Congress and the media, in part because the technology was new and unproven, and in part because of cost. In terms of the share of the GPD, the DEW line would cost $34 billion in today’s dollars. All this should sound familiar.
Of course, nation-state threats still exist today — North Korea, Iran to name the two obvious ones. Unfortunately, doubtless others will emerge in the future. But the world is now complicated by the distributed, highly variable threats of terrorists, both in civilian and battlefield environments. Defensive solutions, security thinking, has to mirror those threats.
In this conflict, the front lines are no longer brightly lit. The threats, and even the battles, occur within and around us. It is a 360 degree threat environment. The range of threats are distressingly clear to all practitioners – from improvised explosive devices, to radiological dirty bombs, from engineered biological agents, to toxic chemicals. Even common ‘household’ chemicals – peroxide, acetone and battery acid — were the London subway bombers’ ingredients. There are as well the frightening prospects from MANPADS – shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles in the wrong hands, all the way up to smuggled nuclear weapons. All of this creates special challenges in every aspect of security from intelligence, to detection and interception, to response and mitigation.
Our military has long been aware of, studied and prepared for these kinds of so-called asymmetric conflicts. But given the events of recent years, the challenge of force protection, and asset security, has moved up to the front lines of attention, innovation and funding within the Department of Defense. While moving from low to high priority within the Pentagon might appear to be a paradigm shift in itself – in particular for those with any personal history in that Byzantine world – what drives the new threat paradigm is the fact that all of these threats are now on the front lines of civilian concerns as well.
Which brings me to the last piece of these complementary paradigm shifts – the nature of innovation itself has dramatically transformed over the past half century. It’s not just that we are no longer exclusively focused on building intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellites, SR-71 aircraft and city-sized nuclear aircraft carriers – but it is that the very machine-tools and building blocks of our age are radically and profoundly different. Today’s building-block materials, and semiconductor machine-tools, come out of the digital revolution – with properties and capabilities unimagined even a few decades ago.
Until recently, the technological machinery of the digital, and now quantum technology age have been focused mainly on producing iPods, cell phones, video games, gigabit data streams, Internet server farms, and to a lesser extent weapons like laser-guided bombs. The digital economy’s underlying intellectual property and machinery have not been focused on civilian or military security. As it happens, the tech revolution’s machine tools and intellectual property are well-suited to producing the equivalent of ‘micro-radar’ for application in chemical, biological, radiological and biometric domains.
We are now capable of creating what we term a 21st-century DEW line – Distributed Early Warning systems. In fact, we are capable of creating a constellation, and vast network, of such DEW lines. These can be spread across and within our society, and in the 360-degree threat environment in which soldiers find themselves.
The modern DEW lines can integrate information and communication systems across distributed arrays of devices on the edges of networks. This is the same architecture as modern information, Internet and cellular communications systems. The software and networks to manage, analyze and rationalize security and defense data flows are remarkably similar to their civilian counterparts that manage business and entertainment data flows. This is, as you all know, precisely the direction in which both military “network centric” and civilian “converged” security systems are proceeding under the imperatives of dealing with the asymmetric wars against terrorism and in the Middle East.
It is received wisdom that the family of technologies involving radar and radio were powerfully accelerated by World War II. Similarly, the dawn of microprocessors, and the Internet itself, were catalyzed by the technology largess of the U.S. Department of Defense in the pursuit of advantages in the Cold War. Harvard historian, Niall Fergusson proposes in his seminal book, “The Cash Nexus,” that wars, for better or worse, have had this impact for centuries, catalyzing new businesses and with long-term impacts felt broadly and deeply in commercial, industrial and even entertainment domains.
But September 11, 2001, did much more than serve as a pivot in America’s world view, it lead to a rare event: the creation of a new Federal Cabinet Agency. The need for security is hardly a new concept. But from a purely practical, business perspective, there are very few pivotal events as impactful as the advent of a new federal agency. Consider an analogy: prior to 1970, when President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, there were certainly rules, regulations, and businesses involved in various aspects of pollution and emissions. But there was nothing anyone would have termed or recognized as an environmental protection industry. But the creation of a new Federal bureaucracy, the EPA, was the key catalyst leading to what is today an $800 billion a year environmental protection industry.
Similarly, there have always been businesses focused on the protection of people and assets. But with the DHS, the emerging security industry has only just started to grow from its roughly $100 billion a year global run-rate today.
Of equal importance in understanding the landscape of the 21st century for Quantum (and digital) Technologies, is the collateral paradigm shift in the source of innovation. The government has long had a heavy hand in innovation, as have major technology corporations. Thomas Edison’s most important invention was the creation of the idea of a corporate R&D laboratory. All these remain important today. But added to the mix now is the enormous venture capital industry, and the venture capital investment model.
Many of today’s Quantum Technology devices, software and systems are emerging from a techno-capital, entrepreneurial infrastructure that is unlike anything imagined in the world of a half-century ago. Much of the innovation is emerging from small enterprises, universities, and the apocryphal garage-entrepreneurs, many supported by venture funds. Indeed, many of the advanced technologies deployed by traditional industrial giants were first created in small entrepreneurial enterprises, not in their own R&D labs.
The technology venture capital industry as we know it today came in to being only three decades ago, emerging from a combination of factors, including changes in banking and pension fund regulations, and the technology fall-out from the Cold War. The first big year for venture capital was 1978 when the industry raised about $750 million; by 1983 there were over 100 initial public offerings in one year, for the first time in history. Today hundreds of venture funds manage collectively hundreds of billions of dollars. And the impact of “venture” funding reaches far beyond the private sector. It is fair to say that many government funding programs, from the DoD’s DARPA to the DHS, to the Army’s MIT-based Soldier Nanotechnology Initiative, and the CIA are venture modeled.
The ultimate evidence of the confluence of these various paradigm shifts is visible out on the floor of this Quantum Technology Exhibition. I dare say some of the companies on the Exhibit floor would tell you they have revolutionary technologies. Many probably do. The challenge for investors – venture investors of private capital, and government investors of public funds – is to pick and chose the possible winners in this Quantum Cornucopia. The challenge for the entrepreneurs and companies is to prove that their new idea is on that hockey-stick trajectory. I’m sure any of us would like to be able to be associated with a company that can one day look back and assert that they followed the trajectory of a revolution as defined by the great writer, Arthur C. Clarke:
“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: (1) It's completely impossible. (2) It's possible, but it's not worth doing. (3) I said it was a good idea all along.”