There's an intriguing article in today's Wall Street Journal (which hides behind a registration wall.) It's by Gautam Naik and it's about how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the Pentagon, has funded research at Duke University. Researchers there have built an experimental camera that captures an amazing amount of data from a single picture, allowing the user--after the picture is taken--to zoom in on different portions of the image in extraordinary detail. It collects 30 times as much picture data as today's best consumer digital devices.
Pretty cool. What are we going to do with this technology? The right answer is that we should recognize we have the beginnings of a brand new camera industry that could blow the Japanese and Taiwanese and everyone else out of the water. This is a disruptive technology. All other cameras are now obsolete.
We should figure out how to nurture this technology so that it can be commercialized. Right now, the Duke device, called Aware-2, weighs 100 pounds and is about the size of two stacked microwave ovens. It also takes 18 seconds to shoot a frame. We've seen this problem before, in semiconductors and lithium ion batteries and solar energy panels. We need to achieve scale to drive down the cost and size. The government should play a role in funding the technology as it leaves the university setting, and allow private sector companies to run with the new camera. Duke should license the technology on generous terms. Ultimately, only the private sector can make the commercial decisions about building factories and hiring people and marketing a product. Perhaps we should create a government-business consortium to enable this to happen. Kodak, Xerox and other companies should be involved.
But what will really happen? DARPA believes in funding the proof of concept. It wants to show that something can be done, just as it funded the autonomous vehicles that Carnegie Mellon developed, and which I described in The Next American Economy. So the chances are that DARPA will now move on to the next project, and drop this entirely. They've proved their point. They assume that the private sector will step in at this point. That's almost certainly wrong. The technology is still at a pre-commercial level. There are too many risks and no clear path to profitability.
So at this point, the Small Business Administration should step in with a great deal of money to fund lots of small efforts to develop the Duke camera. We don't know precisely which path will lead to successful commercialization, so there needs to be a period of experimentation. The Obama Administration, as a whole, should get behind this new camera initiative. Other funding could come from the Department of Commerce and its National Institute of Standards and Technology. Other arms of the Pentagon could continue funding development.
But very little of that will happen because we are confused as a nation. We think it is wrong for the goverment to "pick winners and losers."
So what probably will happen is that a Japanese or German or Taiwanese or Chinese company will license the technology and develop a brand new line of powerful cameras. The factories that will make those cameras will be located in one or more of those countries. This has happened time and time again in the United States. We come up with a great technology, but then let others develop it and enjoy the commercial gains.
When are we going to wake up? The headlines are dominated by bad news about the economy. No one seems to have any idea of how to create jobs. Hello! This would be one way. It's staring us in the face.