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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Technology, Not Politics, Is the Future of Progress

The bright future of innovation lies in private tech

A branch of Google has recently partnered with medical devices manufacturer Ethicon to form Verb Surgical Inc. The new company aims to develop robotic technology for operating rooms. Robot-assisted surgery is at the cutting edge of technical development, an idea from science fiction that is coming to life.

This is one of several examples of how Google is betting on ideas that have little to do with browsing the Internet. The firm is applying the same bold approach that gave rise to its web browser to new fields such as longevity and automated cars.

But will regulators allow these radical innovations? Information technology is the market which comes closest to the ideal of economic freedom, with little government intervention and limited regulation. When the same approach to innovation is taken to other fields, red tape becomes a much greater concern.

It has only been 20 years since the two PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began a research project about understanding the mathematical properties of the World Wide Web. Most researchers would have been content with publishing their results in academic journals, letting others reap the fruit of their ideas. Page and Brin chose to realize their vision of a better search engine. Soon the Google search engine reached a global audience, and became quite valuable.

Rather than sticking to the development of search engines, or for that matter related technologies such as browsers, the firm decided to use its funds and pool of talents to push for other innovations. Sergey Brin today not only runs Alphabet — Google’s parent company  together with Larry Page, he also oversees Google[x], a semi-secret research and development facility.

Google[x] aims to find major challenges facing humanity, identify radical proposed solutions to those problems, and attempt to realize them. One example of its ventures is the Google driverless car project. Currently a number of different cars including the Toyota Prius, Audi TT, and Lexus RX450h have been fitted with self-driving equipment and the Google Chauffeur program. Google has also developed their own custom vehicle.

However, regulations hinder automated cars. A lot of energy has been spent lobbying legislators to allow this new innovation. Gradually, progress is being made in the US, as well as a number of other countries, including the UK. But much of the global market still remains closed to automated cars, and will likely remain so for years to come.

A more humble innovation launched by Google was to offer coach services to its own workers in San Francisco. Alongside other tech-firms such as Facebook, Genentech and Apple, Google decided to deploy private buses to transport its employees to and from their places of work. This alleviated the traffic problem, by reducing the number of cars on the streets, reduced the strain on public buses, and made it possible to introduce coaches which function as mobile offices.

Critics however accused the private coaches of insulating a privileged class from the plight of the average commuters, which led to the city of San Francisco deciding to tax and regulate Google’s vehicles. Challenging the dominance of public buses proved more policially risky than challenging search engines such as Altavista and Yahoo.

Perhaps the most interesting venture created by Google is Calico, a biotech firm focused on health, wellbeing and longevity. The core idea is to use modern biotechnology to prolong a healthy life span. This, Calico hopes, can be accomplished by enhancing the ability of human cells to regenerate themselves. If successful, such technologies can have a profound impact on how healthy and how long lives we live.

However, the unique freedom under which the Google search engine and other forms of information technology developed under have little to do with pharmaceutical development. In the US it takes an average of 12 years for an experimental drug to travel from the laboratory to the consumer market. Many pharmaceuticals are banned, sometimes arbitrarily. The regulatory issues surrounding robotic surgery have likewise been discussed for many years, and are still awaiting a resolution.

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate new pharmaceuticals, automated cars, and robot surgeries. Indeed, robotics is probably one of the fields where we should be most concerned with the possible future risks of new technologies.

At the same time, it is important that a slow pace of regulatory change, outright bans, and government meddling in markets are not allowed to hinder innovations such as pharmaceuticals that can prolong our healthy life span. There is good reason to draw inspiration from information technology.

Funding of basic and military research have historically played a key role in promoting computer technology and the Internet. In the long run however, computers, computer games and online ventures have become the most innovative markets in the world precisely since regulations and government involvement have been kept at minimal levels.

It is no surprise that a successful Internet firm is aiming to revolutionize also other fields. Hopefully, regulations will not prove too steep from hindering Googles promising moonshot projects.

This piece first appeared at CapX.