Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Robbie the robot on patrol in Nevada; Also was Biden right?

As a reminder that we are now living in the 21st century, General Dynamics has developed a robot that patrols the roads and confronts intruders. It is currently operational at the Nevada National Security Site:

On the subject of advanced technology, Vice President Joe Biden recently said:
“Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive,”
He is, of course, wrong (he said "every") but not as wrong as his critics claim. For example, at, Matt Welch proposes as counter-examples:
How about the personal computer? The mobile phone?
However, both of those technologies involved both government and private industry. The underlying technology for both is semiconductor electronics which started with the transistor which was invented by a government-sanctioned monopoly: Bell Telephone. After that, semiconductor electronics were further developed to practical use by various companies under funding from DoD and NASA. Taking a longer view, mobile phones, for example, were widely used by soldiers in World War II decades before they were in common use by civilians. The reason is that, for the military, communications are a critical life-and-death matter and therefore worthy of investment over a long period. Long term planning has similarly characterized DoD investment in aircraft and space. For private companies, by contrast, a long term plan is likely to be closer to 2 to 5 years rather than 20 to 50 years that the DoD is comfortable with. Consequently, the government, principally through the military, has had a strong role in the development of new technologies.

On the other hand, Matt Welch is right that PCs and cell phones would never have become affordable for the average citizen without competitive private industry. What happens when there is no private industry is made clear by the example of the Soviet Union where the government did fund a lot of successful research but few consumer products ever resulted. Going back further in history, imperial China invented a lot of new technologies, like the mechanical clock, the compass, and gunpowder, but these technologies reached their potential in only countries not under the totalitarian control of an emperor. Private companies play a role that the government is simply unable to.

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