Archives for May 2016

Would we fund GPS today and would we find a Brad Parkinson to develop it?

Precision agriculture can increase profits and limit environment

Last week Brad Parkinson was awarded the Marconi Prize for his work developing the GPS technology that synchronizes space and time for the entire planet. Parkinson’s recognition is certainly deserved considering how pervasive GPS technology has become and his unwavering insistence on making it available globally as a free service. It didn’t have to be that way and probably wouldn’t be if GPS were developed today.

GPS was developed by Parkinson’s team at the US Air Force in the 70s. I recommend reading this brief history of it’s development, published by Stanford University in 1995 before the big GPS boom happened. Since then, GPS has significantly altered our view of the world by enabling the maps and apps that take us everywhere on the planet. Readers who are curious about the applications of GPS might want to read Greg Milner’s recently published  book: Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds.

I can’t help but wonder if we would have the resolve to develop GPS from scratch today and make it available worldwide for free. It’s hard to imagine that a private company developing the technology would give the service away. Recovering the high cost of satellites and rockets would make a freemium business model highly unlikely. The money to build and launch all these satellites would have to come from the GPS service itself, which implies that it would use encoded signals that would only be intelligible to matched decoding receivers. The receivers would cost a lot more than they do today because of the licensing fees that would need to be paid to the satellite operating company. Satellite radio is a reasonably good comparison and it hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm.

Also, if GPS were developed by private industry there would almost certainly be multiple competing GPS satellite systems – all with their own equipment, licensing deals and the inevitable patent infringement lawsuits to muddy the waters. In fact, there are other satellite positioning systems circling the earth, such as Russia’s GLONASS, and others that are in development, but they will likely have free services following the economic course set by GPS. Brad Parkinson’s determination to make a free civilian GPS band available opened the doors to an eternity of free positioning services. He probably wasn’t thinking about that back in the 70’s, but that is his legacy.

At the time Parkinson developed GPS, there were many in the military and congress that thought it was a waste of money on what they perceived to be a redundant navigation system. I suspect that if GPS were a project today that it would not survive the budget cutting mindset of congress. But Parkinson made sure enough people understood that it was not a navigation system, but a way to locate targets so that the risks and errors of war could be minimized. It’s now abundantly clear that GPS makes war much more efficient and has saved many lives by reducing the number of bombs that hit the wrong targets. That said, mistakes still occur and war is a horrible thing, but Parkinson acted in the best interest of soldiers and civilians to limit casualties. He left the Air Force in the 80’s and worked for most of the rest of his career as a professor at Stanford University.

If GPS had not been developed all those years ago, would we try to invent it now or would it be too difficult economically? If the answer is “no, it would be too expensive”, what does that say about our abilities to create key infrastructure technologies today? What, if anything, have we lost over the last four decades.

Somebody we should all know a lot more about: Claude Shannon

claudeshannonEvery now and then you find something out that seems almost impossible that you didn’t know it previously.  A few months ago I stumbled across one of those things when speaking with Nick Bellinger. It seemed like a small thing – I mentioned that I had once lived in Petoskey Michigan and he responded that I must know about Claude Shannon. When I said no, he gave me one of those incredulous looks that let me know instantly that I had missed badly. Thankfully, Nick went on to inform me that Mr. Shannon had invented information theory and further that I could read about it in a fascinating book called “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gertner.

I listened with rapt attention to the audio book as it told story after story of Bell Labs and the people who worked there discovering and inventing much of the stuff that the information age is based on. I highly recommend it for the sections on Claude Shannon that portray the finest and quirkiest aspects of human creativity that most of us can only look at in amazement and wonder. Stories of his seemingly ridiculous and fascinating inventions – such as the robotic machine whose only function is to turn itself off – are both wildly humorous and stimulating. Individuals like Shannon are often disregarded as lone wolves who don’t play well with others, but Shannon’s story is a testament to how much we can all benefit enormously from their solitary accomplishments.

Shannon invented Information Theory on his own, without direction or suggestion or, from what anyone can tell, conversation with others about what he was doing. It wasn’t just that he invented the idea of the digital bit and the foundations of digital information transmission – he went on to prove mathematically that information could be transmitted without loss over an arbitrarily noisy network given a sufficient number of bits to do the job. Everything we understand about digital data, error correction, compression, encryption and deduplication is rooted in his work. In short, everything connected to a network – which will soon be almost everything with an on/off switch – uses the theories Shannon invented all by himself. He is truly a towering figure and he is also virtually unknown. Shannon never wanted fame, but it’s just not right that we should be ignorant of his work.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of his birth and you can find articles about him online and find out about events that have taken place in his honor, such as this “Extra Ordinary Event” recently at MIT. I think you’ll get the best picture of Shannon from the Idea Factory, where he was held in the highest esteem by the finest engineering and research team ever assembled.