The COMPUTE! Interview
Gerard K. O'Neill
Selby Bateman, Features Editor
"Keep it simple, and make it work" is the informal motto at Gerard O'Neill's Geostar Corporation, a computer-based satellite positioning and communication company on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey.
The motto is characteristic of O'Neill, a leading physicist, author, and high-tech entrepreneur, who has a reputation as a visionary scientist with a knack for seeing to the heart of complex issues.
His first major scientific contribution came in 1956 when, as a 29-year-old Princeton physics instructor, he developed the storagering technique for colliding particle beams. The technique has become standard for subatomic particle accelerators in the field of high-energy physics.
In his three books, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space; 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future; and most recently, The Technology Edge: Opportunities for America in World Competition, O'Neill has explored the possibilities of space colonies, satellite communications, computers, and the challenges facing the United States in its economic and technological development.
For The High Frontier, O'Neill received critical acclaim and captured the popular imagination with his simple, feasible plan for the development of space colonies. He also founded—and is president of—the Space Studies Institute, a privately funded organization which has done much to further the goals of space exploration.
Among the more arresting concepts he developed in The High Frontier was the massdriver transport device, a device with small buckets on a recirculating conveyor belt driven by magnetic impulses. The device could be used to efficiently eject mined lunar raw materials into space, propelling them to a space station under construction.
Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill
His latest book, The Technology Edge, addresses six "hot" technologies which O'Neill believes are crucial emerging industries: microengineering, robotics, genetic engineering, magnetic flight, family aircraft, and space science. If the U.S. does not compete successfully in these areas, he warns, it will lose the technological and economic leadership it has enjoyed.
Despite his many other interests, it is the Geostar Corporation which currently occupies most of O'Neill's time and effort. Geostar, a development firm concerned with communication and navigation via satellite, is a perfect blend of O'Neill's farsighted vision and his make-it-work practicality.
The system which O'Neill and his colleagues are developing could revolutionize how we track and monitor aircraft and how we communicate with one another. Initially, the proposed system would have three satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America. The Geostar central computer facility would use the satellites to route tracking and communication data almost instantaneously for everything from commercial airlines to trucking companies, taxi services, police departments, and even individuals. The key to the system will be a hand-held transceiver which can send and receive messages through the Geostar network.
During the interview, he remarked that an airplane thousands of feet above Princeton was in the process, at that moment, of testing the Geostar system.
An articulate and engaging conversationalist, O'Neill is interested in how microcomputers are affecting our society. He keeps a well-used Apple II Plus within easy reach of his desk. On the day he spoke to COMPUTE!, O'Neill had been using a new Apple He to test the portability of his II Plus programs to the new machine.
C!: A number of Japanese computer companies are now getting behind what's called the MSX operating system standard. And that will probably be introduced sometime soon in this country. Do you think that in the U.S. we will see a standard operating system?
O'Neill: The whole issue of having computer programs that remain usable as you go forward in time—usable for the individual person—is I think extremely important. I think manufacturers are, first of all, being far too callous and far too arrogant with their potential customers about what they've been doing to them in the way of operating systems and programs. Fundamentally, if you buy a program and use it and then want to go over and buy somebody else's—or somebody else wants to sell you a computer, say—I think that the first question that they should be able to answer positively is the question: Will your new computer run all of the programs I'm used to?
Now, they can tell you "We've got a whole bunch of other programs which are much more powerful" and have all kinds of bells and whistles and all of that. Fine, nothing wrong with growing. But they should also be able to tell you that, by the way, it will run all of those programs that you had before.
As machines get more powerful in terms of processor capability and memory capacity and so on, it's not that tough to do it. I would say any manufacturer who sets up a general policy of making equipment that will run anybody's programs is sure going to get my business and my owner loyalty forever. The problem is that up to now manufacturers have not even been compatible within their own product lines.
C!: There are predictions that by 1988 some 50 million homes in the U.S. will have personal computers. In what ways do you see this increased awareness of computers affecting America's technological edge in the world?
O'Neill: I think it will help a lot. It's already true, just because of the accident that we work on an alphabet and the Japanese work, of course, with a character-based system, that we as a people are far more familiar with keyboards than they are. Young Americans growing up nowadays, working with personal computers, are much more familiar with keyboards, much less scared of them, than the older generation.
Geostar is a digital system, a keyboard-type system. It's not a voice system. It could be connected to a personal computer anytime. The message transfer capability is entirely consistent with the kind of telecommunications that you like to carry out with your personal computer, from a portable computer. And, of course, by 1987, today's three or four pound computers that fit in a briefcase are probably going to be shrunk down to a quarter of an inch thick. You can carry those along with a Geostar transceiver, and be in instant touch with anywhere.
C!: In the U.S., companies like Apple and IBM and other microcomputer companies are very competitive. There is very little ability to travel from one system to another ....
O'Neill: Yeah, that's a sore point with me. I get very exercised over it.
C!: Artificial intelligence is or another area in which the Japanese are showing a great deal of concerted effort, just as they are in robotics. What's your view of the pace of change in artificial intelligence development?
O'Neill: You run into some very strong opinions there. There's been a band of supporters for artificial intelligence for some 25 years. And all in all (although they are very bright people) I think it's fair to say that their accomplishments have been substantially less than they were advertising when they started.
It's a very tough subject. One of the fundamental reasons why it's so tough is that if you really want to have machines that think like people, you have to go back to the beginnings of how computers were designed. You don't want a serial, bit-based machine. You need to have a machine which somehow can carry out the associative function of the human brain. Which is a function that we have very little understanding of. You know, we do not understand the associative function of the human brain nearly as well now as we understood binary arithmetic five thousand years ago. So, it's not just a question of how to design a computer, it's to even understand the problem well enough to know how to start it. I think there are sure to be some very exciting developments in artificial intelligence over the next fifty years, but I'd be surprised if they come out of classical computer design of the kind that we're used to now.
C!: In the field of microengineering, we're beginning to see more interest in what are called "biochips"—computer circuits that one day might be based on biological molecules. There are even a few biochemists who feel biochemical engineering may lead to some analog, rather than digital, biologically based microchips.
O'Neill: You have to be careful about that, because one of the things we've discovered about genetic hardware is that when you really get down to the level of the way that cells work, they are binary, they are digital. They are not analog devices. The numbers of neurons acting and so on get to be big enough so that you can see what appear to be analog signals, but when you really get down to the level of how any living organism works, it is a very mechanistic system which is much more digital than analog. And the way the genes and the various templates fit together in genetics is a very rigid, very digital structure.
So, I think we'll be following a dead end if we think that by kind of retreating to analog type systems we've somehow improved our chances of going into artificial intelligence. I don't think that's where the key is. But the notion that you don't do things in a linear, serial fashion, but that you do them in an associative fashion, with all kinds of branches—that is fundamental to artificial intelligence.
C!: Do you think we'll see the widespread use of domestic or personal robots in American homes in the next 20 years?
O'Neill: I think so. It's much more likely that the first practical household robot will grow out of hobbyist activities than that it will grow out of the activities of some large organized company. It's the sort of thing that's going to take some fanatic working in a basement or garage to do right.
C!: What forms will these robots have?
O'Neill: It's really a question of where the market is. If you look at robots so far, if you had to try to characterize the successful Ones in a single sentence, you would say that they are mechanical single arms. The next step is probably some degree of mobility. But I would guess, to be quite honest, that they are going to turn out to be applications of robotics that don't really stretch the art at all, that will have a profound impact on markets. For example, if you take something like a McDonald's hamburger place, and put relatively low-level industrial robots in there, you may do a better job of making hamburgers.
C!: What's the status of your Space Studies Institute?
O'Neill: I forget offhand
"It's the sort of thing that's going to take some fanatic working in a basement or garage to do right"
the number of months in which its membership has doubled. But it's growing rapidly.
The Institute is just receiving now the results of a two-year study that was carried out under SSI (Space Studies Institute) funding by Rockwell International on the chemical processing of lunar soil. This is the first time that the actual wet chemistry has really been done—where people have put chemicals in test tubes. And that has come out very favorably.
The mass-driver research, which was also Institute funded, has now progressed so well that it has now gone into a computer phase. The mass-driver-three design was basically worked out on an Apple computer. And then through that computer-aided design, the mass-driver-three model was built. It obeyed the CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacture) design within one percent. The next phase is to go back to the computer and say, OK, now that you've had this cross-check, let's go ahead and design a complete lunar catapult.
C!: Do you still see a mass-driver as the best vehicle for movement of materials in setting up the first space colony?
O'Neill: Absolutely. It's going so well that it's not expensive for us right now because we're not having to build an elaborate test model. We've done that.
C!: When do you estimate that it will be feasible?
O'Neill: We have some rather close estimates on that because the Institute is on a five-year research program, which by coincidence will conclude in 1987. At that time we expect to have an overall plan to publish which will have every essential technical building block for space industry at least to the benchtop or pilot plan stage of application. And then to go from there to the point of economic productivity is roughly a five-year program. When that five-year program begins, of course, depends on when somebody buys into it to the level of funding that will be needed.
There is a new research program of the Institute within that five-year plan, and we're just about to award the contract for it now. And that will be for the design of a solar-powered satellite specifically to be manufacturable out of lunar materials. That's never been done before and obviously needs doing. And the Institute has the money accumulated from its members and its Senior Associates to do that work and has gotten the bids in for it and is just about to award a contract.
C!: Despite the explosion in high technology we're experiencing, our space program seems to have a lower national visibility now than in past years. Why is that, and what does it mean for the future?
O'Neill: I think it's a correct perception that the national awareness of it has decreased. Although interestingly enough, all of the surveys that have been done indicate that the national support for a strong space program is broader based now than it ever was before. I think the reason that it's in low visibility is that there is no really very exciting program that NASA has. And we regard the work that we're doing as essentially independent of NASA, although the Institute's work is clearly based on taking all of the technology that has been developed in the first 25 years of the space program and is being developed right now.
C!: Is the most exciting work being done by private companies?
O'Neill: Well, I'm a highly biased source. I think the most significant thing going on is the research that the Institute is funding. That's why we're doing it. If we thought there was something else that had higher potential payoff, that's what we'd be doing.
C!: When you first began advocating colonies in space 15 years ago or more, you had a certain view of the potential it would have and how quickly it might come about. Has that changed at all?
O'Neill: No, it really hasn't changed. The main difference is that I thought of it then as naturally a governmental program because the scale of funding that was required appeared to be very big. As the result of, first, the five years or so of work that I did on my own, and then the ten years of work that has been done with a lot of people involved, it all looks a lot simpler and a lot smaller in scale than it did 15 years ago. Now it looks as if the action program to move out into space and use the energy and materials there in a productive way is probably a seven or eight billion dollar program instead of a 200 billion dollar program. So it's in the scale of projects which have been privately financed. And I think that sometime in the late 1980s, there could be some very exciting, creative new developments in putting together a financial package of that kind which I would think of as probably being done on a consortium basis by a number of companies.
Although most people are not aware of it, the long-term result of the developments of the kind that the Space Studies Institute has been supporting is obviously human habitation in space and the movement out onto the high frontier. There has been since last October a very nice exhibit on that subject, which is easily accessible; namely, the General Electric Horizons Pavilion down at the Epcot Center in Disney World. That's about a 70 or 80 million dollar exhibit with a fantastic ride through four communities of the future. And the one that gets the lion's share of the attention and the time is the space colony, which is very accurately based on blueprints that were supplied to General Electric and to the Disney Enterprises by the Space Studies Institute. So, people who want to see in a very easy way in a few minutes what the long-term potential is there, should go and visit the Horizons Pavilion. And I sure hope they would come out of it wanting to support SSI.
C!: Do you think you will ever go into space?
O'Neill: [Laughs] Sure hope so.
C! You have a reputation as a scientist and as a writer; as someone with an ability to see through to the core of a problem or an opportunity ....
O'Neill: I'm glad you see it that way. Not everybody has been that kind [laughs],
C!: How do you handle the inevitable frustrations that occur when the pace of advancement lags, say, in space exploration?
O'Neill: I don't think that it bothers me very much as long as I feel that I'm taking productive action to make things happen as fast as possible, rather than trying to fight with a governmental system which is fundamentally pretty unresponsive. I just find it very much more rewarding, in terms of personal satisfaction, to be a part of the Institute's effort. We're doing it on our own.
C!: In The Technology Edge, you put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that the U.S. is going to have to compete to stay in the lead ....
C!: Yet, at the same time, I sense that you have a feeling that international cooperation is desirable in the long run both technologically and economically. How can we achieve both of those goals?
O'Neill: It's a good question. The best thing, of course, is always to go by historical example. Most of the important openings up of economic opportunity, the exploitation of economic opportunity, have occurred in a competitive fashion either privately or governmentally. And the space program is a classic example of that, even to the point where in Japan there are two different, competing space programs.
So, let's say we open up the opportunity for magnetic flight systems. I think you're going to find competitive construction of magnetic flight systems in a number of different countries and by different companies within the same country. All it takes is for the opportunity to be perceived, and everybody wants to jump in.
The same thing is going to happen in light aircraft construction. The same thing is going to happen in space. So I don't see it as being an orderly international cooperative program to move in a logical fashion into space. It's going to be a disorderly, helter-skelter, competitive thing. It's just the way human beings do things. And oddly enough, it's probably 'the most effective way. Part of the reason for that is that very large structures tend to be inefficient and bureaucratic by their very nature. I have seen international cooperative organizations in science working, and they are some of the worst bureaucracies you could ever find. Groups of impassioned young scientists working away to try to make something happen are far more effective per dollar spent than these huge cooperative international programs.
On the other hand, there are certainly examples internationally of operations which are generally perceived as useful, and so naturally worldwide in scope, that they do become effective international programs which cross all ideological boundaries. Intelsat is one example of that.
Where could that sort of thing happen again? I would guess that there would be coordination in setting up solar power satellites in synchronous orbit; coordination to minimize interference with radio systems and so on. I would not expect that it would go to the point that all the solar power satellites would be built by the same entity. I think there would be a number of different competing entities from different countries making them. The saving grace is that solar power satellites are fundamentally a peaceful technology.
C!: What kind of support are you finding for Geostar?
O'Neill: It's been very positive so far. All the heads are nodding together. Many, many industries have come to us and said that we are going to help them a lot. In fact, it's amusing. Many industries knock on our door, and the guys come in and say, "How did you know to design a system that is exactly what we've been looking for?"
The land transportation industry, trucking companies, police departments, fire departments, taxi services ....
C!: And in the long run?
O'Neill: In the long run, anybody.
C!: You have already completed mountaintop and airplane emulations of the Geostar satellite functions. What's the timetable for the actual satellite?
O'Neill: So far, the company has met all of its milestones. We are looking to begin service to the entire continental United States in 1987.
One of the most critical items for that is the issuance by the Federal Communications Commission of what's called a "notice of proposed rule-making," which would allocate the spectra for the Geostar service. And that is going very well. There's a very strong possibility that something important will have happened in that area even before your magazine comes out.
The development of the transceivers actually takes just about as long as the development time for the satellites themselves. It's a different kind of technical task, but the time scales are about the same.
C!: What types of services will Geostar provide?
O'Neill: In aviation, the kinds of services that would be provided would be, for example, positioning, very accurately—on the order of meters. We can technically provide what's called radio location, which means feeding back the location of a vehicle or an aircraft to a fleet dispatch headquarters. We can provide for aircraft terrain avoidance, because we will have the stored terrain map. So if we see an aircraft heading toward a TV tower or a mountain, we will be feeding warnings to the pilot at the time.
There would be, of course, a two-way digital message service, all provided through the same device. And you could send a message from any transceiver to any other transceiver with a typical delay of about six-tenths of a second. And lastly, it is also an emergency warning system, because the ground station computer will be tracking aircraft. And if you see an aircraft which is heading toward a collision with terrain, first of all, you'll be sending warnings, automatically generated by the computer, and if the aircraft does crash, you will recognize the fact from several confirming sources. And that's important, because the so-called emergency locating transmitters (ELT) that are now federally mandated and carried by aircraft have a horrendous false alarm rate—approximately 98 percent of all ELT firings are false alarms.
C!: How does Geostar fit in among the six high-tech fields you discuss in The Technology Edge?
O'Neill: Well, the six technology areas that I identified as being, in my judgement, places where there is the biggest opportunity for major new markets up in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars a year— things that would really make a difference on a worldwide scale of competition—really divide themselves into two halves. The first three are things that people feel they know all about, although they really don't as I tried to point out in the book. There are a lot of things that people didn't realize. The microengineering—which covers all of cimputer electronics and so on—the robotic area, and what I call genetic hardware. In the first two, the battle has already been joined on a very large scale.
The last three of those six areas are particularly interesting to me because they are still up for grabs. The first one is magnetic flight—very high-speed transport in a vacuum underground using principles of physics which are in fact more than a hundred years old.
The fifth area, the possibility that family aircraft, light aircraft, might be a new growth market, in its turn as big as automobiles were 60 years ago, is one that is the first place where I would see Geostar playing a role (in one of those six areas).
As we become a more and more dispersed society—new industries being built not in the traditional city centers but often small towns and more and more people moving to settle in suburbs and small towns, as is happening—you end up more and more in a situation where traditional transportation systems—which basically go from city center to city center—are just not very effective. If you want to go from New York to San Francisco, great. The airlines are perfectly set up to do an excellent job of that. But if you want to go from some small-town area to another small-town area, which is more and more the case these days with business travel, you don't get served very well. So the market is there.
C!: How would Geostar have an impact on aviation?
O'Neill: The way that Geostar would affect aviation is sort of generically the same way that it would affect a number of other situations in life and affairs. The difference is that in aviation, all the needs come together in one place. The fundamental thing is that the Geostar transceiver is a very light, simple, inexpensive thing, which in effect can run on double-A cells. It's a goal which the manufacturers regard as not at all impossible.
C!: How can the U.S. best maintain its lead in the area of computer development?
O'Neill: Computer development, of course, falls into the first of those areas. It's one where the battle is already joined and nobody has any very big lead. So, the opportunities for getting way out in front are not as good as they are in those last three areas.
In general, for all of the long-term big payoff developments that I was talking about in The Technology Edge, I think that the most important single change is a relatively minor one in the law, but it's an important one. And that would be a change that would favor funneling even a small amount of money into long-term investment. Everthing in our economic system and our legal structure is set up right now to favor relatively short-term investment. The venture capitalists will tell you that they're in for the long term, but from their point of view three years is a long time.
C!: Right. Whereas the Japanese…
O'Neill: The Japanese think in the decade or multidecade time scale. Now there are a number of structural reasons about the Japanese economic and political structure why that is possible. But rather than trying to imitate that, I think that it makes more sense to do something that we already know works in American society, and that is simply to alter the tax laws a little bit. And the alteration I would make is simply: Set it up so that if someone makes an investment in a company… and leaves his money in for a full, say ten years, then all of the earnings and appreciation—not just the capital appreciation associated with that, but the earnings from all of it—ought to be essentially untaxed for a long period of time. There ought to be a tax moratorium extending for at least several years on those returns. What that would do is just to divert a small amount of the roughly four billion dollars in venture capital funding, that now is generated, into long-term investments of that kind. It wouldn't have to be a whole lot. You know, the difference between one percent and none is already important.
Biochips: A Revolution In The Making
Selby Bateman, Features Editor
The silicon chip—the wafer-thin foundation of the computer world—may someday be replaced by a microscopic organic "biochip." Based on today's pioneering work in biotechnology, the biochip would be far smaller, faster, and more powerful than its silicon predecessor.
In the not too distant future, Silicon Valley may have to change its name to Protein Valley.
There's still plenty of time to work out the details of the name change. But there are already indications that the limitations of silicon-based transistors will drive the computer industry to a more effective and potentially more powerful technology. And a few biophysicists and electronics engineers are betting that the eventual winner will be in organic molecules manipulated to form superefficient microchips.
In essence, these biochips would be microscopic switches which would transmit electrical impulses in much the same way that silicon-based chips operate today. The work is now in its earliest stages, and there are many who are skeptical of the long-range practicality of such technology. But small groups of optimistic entrepreneurs are spending millions of dollars on research to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea
"The prospects for support are excellent both from the government and the civilian sector," says biophysicist James H. McAlear, whose Gentronix Laboratories is a leader in the field.
McAlear and partner John M. Wehrung, an electronics engineer, have already discussed possible applications for bio-molecular electronics with officials at the Pentagon and the United States Information Agency (USIA).
Why even consider abandoning the silicon chip?
One major reason stems from the amazing pace of technological change in the computer field. As computer chips have evolved, they have rapidly gotten smaller and less expensive. At the same time, the number of operations required per chip has leapfrogged upward.
A microchip itself is little more than a grid of silicon tracks—sophisticated electrical relays—through which current flows or doesn't flow depending on what operations are being performed. The problem with silicon chips develops when more and smaller tracks are crammed onto a chip. At a certain point, the electrons racing along these paths begin to adversely affect each other in what is called cross-talk. The circuitry is also prone to overheat as the elections start to lose energy during their travels.
Theoretically, organic molecules and specially developed proteins would offer none of these problems. They could also be manipulated to create the on-or-off, binary gates that form the basis of today's digital computers.
Practical applications are likely to include products ranging from erasable laser disks to molecular memory devices, for example. But the first applications may well be in sensing devices.
"Noses On A Chip"
"Noses on a chip" is what Daniel Hillis calls these sensing devices of the future. Hillis heads an artificial intelligence company in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area that is also rumored to be working on research related to biochip technology.
"Chemo-detectors will be the first area of practical application for biochips," he says "A chemical detector is basically for smelling.
"For instance, imagine if your wrist-watch warned you when you needed to take a shower because you smell funny," he says.
The biotechnology industry has so tar achieved its greatest visibility through such recent microengineering feats as genetic cloning. But over the next decade—with technological advances expected to continue at their frenetic pace—biomolecular research on computer microchips and spin-off applications will likely achieve both increased popular awareness and financial backing.