Technologist heaven, that is, thanks to his dream job as CEO of SRI International, a veritable Willy Wonka factory of science and tech R&D.
Once known as Stanford Research Institute for its home at the prestigious university from 1946 to independence in 1970--SRI is a nonprofit that's been instrumental to the development of everyday marvels like the computer mouse, the PC, the cell phone and high-definition television. In the early 1950s, SRI even crunched the numbers to find the perfect location for Walt Disney's Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
Despite the ubiquity of those wonders, SRI is more like a silent partner engineering the future, working with government, industry and its own spinoff companies to introduce technology and scientific innovation to the public.
As SRI's visionary for the last seven years, Carlson is as unassumingly brilliant as the company's own brand. A professional violinist by 15 years of age with the Rhode Island Philharmonic where he grew up, Carlson eventually traded one passion for another when he enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute out of school. In 1973, he landed a job at Princeton, N.J.-based RCA Laboratories, which became part of SRI in 1987 as the Sarnoff Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary. There, he helped found more than 10 companies and pioneered development of HDTV technology that would become the standard in the United States.
CNET News.com spoke recently with the 58-year-old executive at SRI's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Carlson discussed his upcoming book on innovation (to be released by the Crown Publishing Group in June) and the future of science and technology.
Q: It's SRI's 60th anniversary this year, how would you define this era in its history?
Carlson: We are adapting to this exciting age, and we are seeing a world of abundance. We are putting together a family of...programs that I think would really make a huge impact on the United States and the world.
So, for example, we just demonstrated what we call a direct carbon fuel cell. So imagine if you had a device that could burn coal cleanly with about 70 percent efficiency, which is twice what you get if you burn coal today. That's how we are building that system, and it could have a revolutionary impact.
Imagine titanium that's closer to the cost of aluminum than what it is today. We wouldn't build things out of aluminum. We build out of titanium. And we're working at clean water--water in most parts of the world is more valuable than oil. So we're developing advanced technologies for that.
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Carlson: So we have been developing new technologies that get around the traditional problems of expense and a lot of energy to be able to (desalinate) and create clean water.
In drug discovery, we just formed the new Critical Path Institute with the University of Arizona and the FDA. (This) is the first time anyone has ever gotten a partnership (to develop drugs)...because today it takes about 15 years and a billion dollars to create a new drug, and that model is not tenable. And the goal of this new institute is to reduce that 15-year timeline down to three years. Now that's enormously aggressive, but we can see emerging a family of technologies that could begin to incrementally chip away at how long it takes to develop new drugs.
Which areas are you looking into in drug development?
Carlson: Well, the purpose of this institute is to look at the entire process (of drug development) in a very comprehensive way. The whole field of bio-informatics, for example, (involves) computing and information technology (to develop drugs.) We are doing an enormous amount of work here. We are developing new cancer drugs here...We have a number of them in the pipeline.
What other marquee projects do you have cooking in the labs?
Carlson: We developed the core technology for minimally invasive robotics surgery. The idea formed in a company, Intuitive Surgical, which is now a $4 billion company. And the idea is, instead of doing open heart surgery by cutting open your chest cavity, which means you have to be in the hospital for a week or two, you put three probes into your chest cavity, with three small tubes, but at the end of the tubes, allow the doctor to be able to see in 3D and have the sense of touch as well as if he actually was inside your chest cavity...So in principle the doctor doesn't have to be anywhere near the patient. The doctor could be across the world to do an operation like this.
What we just won from DARPA, a government agency, is a project to work with Intuitive Surgical and other partners to shrink this technology down to the size of a medium-size table. So the patient would be on it--first in a battlefield situation where a robot would be able to clean the patient's suture wounds, take blood samples tests, and be connected back to an operator at a remote site to be able to take care of patients.
We think this kind of technology will end up in emergency rooms.
I know you're writing a book about the process of innovation. Please talk about that.
Carlson: Well, the first observation about innovation is it's a process. Innovation is also a creative act, and the question is, how can you be more disciplined about it, how can you create a process that'll be much more effective in getting you from the start to the end?
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