Predicting usefulness

Robert McMillan of Wired has interviewed Robert Taylor, formerly of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later Xerox PARC, regarding the recent discussion about the early history of the internet:

“The origins of the internet include work both sponsored by the government and Xerox PARC, so you can’t say that the internet was invented by either one alone,” [Taylor] says.

So would the internet have been invented without the government? “That’s a tough question,” he says. “Private industry does not like to start brand new directions in technology. Private industry is conservative by nature. So the ARPAnet probably could not have been built by private industry. It was deemed to be a crazy idea at the time.”

In other words: What is a mere curiosity (or “crazy idea”) today may turn out to be a very useful innovation tomorrow, but there is no way of telling in advance.

This is why publicly funded research should be allowed to be experimental and free-ranging, not driven by short-term commercial pressures. An obvious and very simple truth that politicians everywhere seem unable to accept, as they shut down funding to research not deemed to be “useful” or “profitable” enough. The internet has turned out to be quite useful, don’t you think?