Had a chance to tour USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center (IMSC) as part of the LA County Technology Week. Saw demos of some spectacular 3D imaging systems which make today’s Google Maps seem rather “flat”. Two striking observations: foreign nationals (primarily Asian) are doing the cutting edge research, and I predict Google will benefit hugely by this – but will the rest of us?
Established 10 years ago, IMSC is part of University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and has the motto “Sensing the Edge – Serving a Need.” They do graduate research in the areas of immersive sound, user interfaces, peer-to-peer video, virtual environments, etc.
The demo I witnessed was of the “Augmented Virtual Environment” (AVE), which combines 3D mapping data of a location, say, a city block, with real-time video images seamlessly superimposed across a large scene, say, people walking down the block. If you’ve watched “24”, you’ll recognize this technology. Absolutely awesome, technically. A bit scary, if you’re nervous about “Big Brother”…
What struck me, in particular after asking around, was that 70-80% of the researchers in this graduate school are foreign nationals. They are the brightest technically-minded people on the planet, and they have come to LA to do their work. This is apparently not unusual at other American research schools. Why is it that American citizens (even of Asian ancestory, for example), are not doing this research? Are they not smart enough? I hope not. Do schools systematically favor foreigners? I doubt it. Is the work too difficult, and Americans would rather do marketing and business subjects? This is my guess.
Now, I’m an internationalist, almost by definition, having lived abroad 13 years and in fact studied abroad. So I’m actually quite proud that these young researchers believe that they can do their best work in the US, and ultimately, the world will benefit from their inventions. I would hope that they in fact remain in the US, so that our economy can benefit from the fruits of their labors. And we can learn from them. If they move back to their home countries and work for a foreign company, all the expenses and profits of their future ventures will be spent abroad; not much direct gain to our economy.
Although perhaps their employers won’t be foreign. Interestingly, Google has partly funded the AVE project with no strings attached. This could have great commercial benefit for Google to learn about new technologies, even though the company has no prior claim to these, and the dollar amounts are pretty small.
My assertion is that Google is essentially tapping into the well of the smartest people in the world. Google needs to make sure they attract the best and remain the hippest place to work for the smartest people. Much like Microsoft was through the 80’s and 90’s. I believe Google funds research projects to hire future employees. I even feel sorry for Microsoft…
Of course, other companies have done this for years, and even today, companies like Honeywell and Chevron fund projects at IMSC. But none of them are as “sexy” as Google. Google will be poised to profit from these smart employees, no matter where they choose to live. So if they don’t remain in the USA, at least the rest of us can own Google stock and reap some benefit of their work.