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A peek inside IBM's research lab points to the shortcomings of corporate R&D

A peek inside IBM's research lab points to the shortcomings of corporate R&D
The harvest of corporate scientific research: "Jeopardy" champ Ken Jennings, left, got creamed by IBM's Watson supercomputer, right, in a televised 2011 demonstration. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

IEEE Spectrum, which electrical engineers and others on the engineering side of tech regard almost as their professional house organ, buries a glimpse into the inner workings of IBM research administration inside an interview with David DiVincenzo, a pioneer in quantum computing.

DiVincenzo is a former research director of IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Since 2010, he has been director of the Institute of Theoretical Nanoelectronics at the Peter Grünberg Institute in Jülich, Germany, and a professor at the Institute for Quantum Information of RWTH Aachen University.

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His take on the progress being made in quantum computing is fascinating, but just as interesting is his brief recollection of IBM's relationship with its research staff. That's important, because corporate research has been playing an ever more important role in American R&D as the government withdraws from the field.

IBM still has a physics department, but at this point almost every physicist is somehow linked to a product plan or customer plan.


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Since government is best suited to fund basic scientific research, and industry focused on marketable development, many scientists fear that basic science -- the seed corn of development -- will be shortchanged. That's especially so as corporate research becomes even more narrowly geared toward the core business lines of its sponsors.

Already the risk is rising of an "innovation deficit" leaving the U.S. behind its European and Asian competitors because of a decline in basic science funding. (See MIT's report on the topic, published in April.)

Basic science spending has been shrinking as a share of the U.S. budget for nearly 50 years.
Basic science spending has been shrinking as a share of the U.S. budget for nearly 50 years. (MIT)

DiVincenzo's recollections trace the evolution of this trend in corporate research. He started working on quantum computing in 1993 at IBM, which hosted the work of the "very eminent" Rolf Landauer and Charles Bennett.

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"At that time, IBM was flexible enough so that I could just jump in," DiVincenzo recalls. Soon the Shor Factoring Algorithm, which became the bedrock of quantum computing theory, was discovered.

For decades IBM judged itself against Bell Labs, the gold standard for corporate nurturing of basic research. In the 1970s, he says, the mantra at IBM was "Are we as famous as Bell Labs?" By the 1980s, IBM had the confidence to stop measuring itself against AT&T, the owner of Bell Labs.

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"The cultures were similar," he says; "they would take rather young scientists and immediately give them all the resources of an institute, basically, without any of the responsibilities. This is a fantastic model which has proven to be not so sustainable — at least not in the corporate world."

And not at IBM, starting in the early 1990s. "IBM had a heavy financial crisis in 1993, its most severe one.  It had a moment when it was really questioning its whole business model and ... undertook a whole sequence of different steps, such as getting out of personal computers, and each one made it appear that physics had become less relevant to IBM.  The physics department got much smaller that year."

What remained, at least for a time, was a research culture that evolved very differently from AT&T's. "Bell evolved into a very competitive internal culture. People were really knocking against each other. Internal seminars were quite an ordeal because you were subjected to really heavy scrutiny. Internal dealings among scientists at IBM were much more congenial."

Still, "the rest of physics at IBM was suffering. IBM still has a physics department, but at this point almost every physicist is somehow linked to a product plan or customer plan. At IBM, right from the beginning, there was always hope that these physicists who were dreaming up interesting things could actually contribute. Research became more directed as time went on."

That could be the epitaph of corporate research labs in general. The heyday of corporate basic research in the 1970s and 1980s yielded to an increased focus on the bottom line., that was the fate, for instance, of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, the fabled PARC. The extraordinary freedom given to the young scientists at PARC upon its founding in 1971 yielded the personal computer, the laser printer and Ethernet. But as the center was brought to heel in the 1980s many of the youthful geniuses of its earliest days fled, some to Apple, Microsoft or to create their own companies such as Adobe and 3Com.

Could the heady days of truly groundbreaking corporate research return? Certainly it would be hard for a present-day CEO to establish a new laboratory after being told that he shouldn't expect a marketable invention for as many as 10 years, as Xerox brass were warned in 1971.

Nor does any of this mean that extraordinary research isn't being done under corporate auspices, including at IBM. The corporation in 2014 notched its 22nd straight year leading the world in the number of patents granted, with 7,534 patents granted, absolutely smoking the competition. (Samsung was second, with 4,952; Microsoft and Google were well down the list with ranks of 5th and 8th, according to a reckoning by Fortune.)

But it does imply that private enterprise won't be the savior of basic science. Not when the governing question from corporate boards is: What's in it for us?

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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