At a time of looming budget cuts, advocates of government financing of technology research argue that it is an investment in the nation’s future.
by STEVE LOHR, New York Times
LUIS VON AHN, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, sold one Internet start-up to Google in 2009, and is now on to another. With the new company, Duolingo, he hopes to tap the millions of people learning languages online to create a crowdsourced engine of translation. “We want to translate the whole Web into every major language,” Mr. von Ahn says.Enlarge This Image.
Ambitious, sure, but Duolingo recently attracted $15 million of venture capital. The investors are betting on Mr. von Ahn, his idea and his growing team of 18 engineers, language experts and Web designers.
Mr. von Ahn, 33, personifies some of the essential ingredients of America’s innovation culture, when it works well. An immigrant from Guatemala, he has intelligence and entrepreneurial energy to spare. And he has received a helping hand from the federal government. Duolingo began as a university research project financed by theNational Science Foundation.
That pattern has been repeated countless times over the years. Government support plays a vital role in incubating new ideas that are harvested by the private sector, sometimes many years later, creating companies and jobs. A report published this year by the National Research Council, a government advisory group, looked at eight computing technologies, including digital communications, databases, computer architectures and artificial intelligence, tracing government-financed research to commercialization. It calculated the portion of revenue at 30 well-known corporations that could be traced back to the seed research backed by government agencies. The total was nearly $500 billion a year.
“If you take any major information technology company today, from Google to Intel to Qualcomm to Apple to Microsoft and beyond, you can trace the core technologies to the rich synergy between federally funded universities and industry research and development,” says Peter Lee, a corporate vice president of Microsoft Research. Dr. Lee headed the National Research Council committee that produced the report, titled “Continuing Innovation in Information Technology.”
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