Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of Microsoft, commissioned the Difference Engine No. 2 that is set to debut at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, on Saturday. It's the second such engine built from plans left by Charles Babbage, a 19th-century mathematician who was never able to build one. Myhrvold now leads Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Washington, company, which he says fosters "invention capital" to help inventors get their products into the real world, but critics say it's a "patent troll," buying up patents so it can later sue companies that use them.
IDG News Service talked to Myhrvold about both Babbage and intellectual property at a press preview of the Babbage device last week.
IDGNS: What would be comparable to the Difference Engine today?
Myhrvold: If we go back to Babbage's day, the idea of doing large numerical calculation was something that just wasn't done. The idea that you had to mechanize it and automate it faster and faster, is just something that didn't exist in that era. So he had this crazy idea that you could do it. [He] spent a huge chunk of his life figuring out how to do it, developing many of the key ideas that later would be in the electronic computing age. ... the idea of programmability, he figured out. It was also, of course, a little bit too hard, so he never got it to actually work during his lifetime.
If you wanted to find a project like that today, you'd have to find a project that had a grand vision for something that people might not quite get. I think this one will succeed ... but Craig Venter has a project to make artificial life for useful purposes. Perhaps another grand vision that one might compare to this are the various folks interested in colonizing space.
IDGNS: I've heard you describe Intellectual Ventures as a new business model ... and apparently a lot of people don't get what you're trying to do. Is that comparable?
Myhrvold: Ha ha! Hoist on my own petard! Well, I don't think our idea is quite as grand as his. We have individual inventions that might be that grand. ... You're right, we have a crazy business model idea, which some people don't get and some people think is impossible, and other people think is great, and we are running the experiment to find out. And I sincerely hope that I know the answer to the experiment in my lifetime, and I'm pretty sure I will.
IDGNS: Can you give me an example of some of the ideas that you're working on?
Myhrvold: Well, we invent in a lot of areas. The computing industry, but also medical devices, solid-state physics. One area that we're really big on is something called metamaterials. Metamaterials, perhaps, is like a Babbage idea. Using nanotech techniques, you could engineer a material that has electromagnetic properties, or other properties, that's whatever you want. The most ambitious aspect will be a programmable material, but ... a lot of the work in metamaterials is focused on optical things. [For example] something with a negative index of refraction.
There's some amazing things you can do. You can make what's called a perfect lens, which is a lens that focuses light even below the diffraction limit. That's a nearly magical thing if you want to make tiny chip features. It's certainly not pragmatic as a kind of optics. Yet. But hopefully, at some point in the next 10 years, it will be.
IDGNS: Do we have a patent litigation crisis?