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Five big ideas from Nathan Myhrvold, the original ‘mad scientist’ from Microsoft

Alan Boyle
Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold takes questions during a Hacker News meetup at Atlas WorkBase in Seattle. The T-shirt reads: “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do a search on “Nathan Myhrvold” and “mad scientist,” and you’ll get nearly 2,000 hits, including profiles from the likes of The New Yorker, Esquire and Men’s Journal.

Myhrvold, however, would probably prefer the title of “polymath”: Over the course of his career, the 60-year-old tech wizard has been a postdoc physicist under Stephen Hawking’s wing, Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, founder of Intellectual Ventures, author of Modernist Cuisine and other high-tech cookbooks, and a researcher into topics ranging from dinosaur tails to near-Earth asteroids.

The polymath held forth for more than an hour on such matters and more, without slides or notes, during a Seattle meet-up presented on Wednesday by the area’s Hacker News fan group and Cofounders Connect. Is Myhrvold truly mad? Check out these five big ideas from the talk, and then you tell me:

Using AI to diagnose disease

Global Good – a venture involving Intellectual Ventures and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates – has been working for years on artificial intelligence applications that can recognize the signs of disease. This year, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that a machine-learning algorithm developed with Intellectual Ventures’ support outperformed human visual inspection techniques and Pap tests in diagnosing cervical cancer.

“Our diagnostic works on a single cellphone photo of the cervix, and it’s more than 90 percent accurate,” Myhrvold said. “We’re currently undergoing clinical trials in a couple of countries in Africa, and that’s pretty exciting. You can do a calculation that would suggest, over a period of time if we get this rolled out, we could save the lives of a billion women.”

Quantum metamaterials

Intellectual Ventures has spun out a half-dozen startups that make use of metamaterials, specially designed electronic structures that bend electromagnetic beams in ways that allow for antennas without moving parts. The next big step will be metamaterials that make use of the weird characteristics of quantum physics.

“If you make a quantum metamaterial, you might be able to make a room-temperature superconductor,” Myhrvold said. “So that would be really cool.”

Robotic pizza

After writing the “Modernist Cuisine” and “Modernist Bread” cookbook series, Myhrvold’s next culinary project is a magnum opus on “Modernist Pizza” (with Francisco Migoya as his collaborator). But before that gets written, there’s still some additional research to do. One of the attendees at the talk invited Myhrvold to visit Zume Pizza in the San Francisco Bay Area to see how the startup uses robotics and AI to make pizza more quickly.

“We’ve been to 140 pizzerias,” Myhrvold replied. “We haven’t been to the Bay Area, yet. We really want to come see robotic pizza.”

Open-source furniture

Myhrvold noted that the open-source approach has revolutionized software development, and helped support the rise of wildly profitable applications including cloud computing at Amazon Web Services. But are there other tech sectors that could benefit from open source? Myhrvold pointed to the maker community as another example.

“I needed to get some furniture, and I recently went about the world’s stupidest way to get furniture: I bought a five-axis CNC router,” he said. The experience taught him that “most things aren’t complicated enough that it’s worth the trouble,” but he said an open-source software system that lets users design and create complicated items themselves could open up new frontiers for 3-D printing.

The future of television

Back in 1994, Myhrvold foresaw that digital networks would revolutionize communications to the point that you wouldn’t have to worry how much you were spending per minute on a phone call. He foresaw that the grip of the Big Three TV networks would give way to a multiplicity of on-demand video options. “The stranglehold that cable had at the time, I thought would go away,” Myhrvold said. “It hasn’t gone away as much as I would have thought it had.”

Myhrvold’s 1994 memo to Bill Gates even predicted the rise of smartphones, well before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. “The other device that was in that [memo] was a fully programmable TV platform, and that hasn’t happened,” Myhrvold said.

“We have set-top boxes, and set-top boxes have some more features in them, and some of them will do some voice recognition. The game consoles have continued, and they’re vastly more powerful now than they were then,” he said. “But we don’t have a platform for television. Everybody’s tried, and everybody’s failed. Microsoft tried. Google tried. Apple tried. And they’ve all been sort of … eh. So maybe that’s one where I just get it wrong, and the world will never have that. That just seems weird to me, but maybe.”

Bonus round

In past years, Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures have come in for some grief from critics who saw the company’s efforts as focused on “patent trolling.” Myhrvold has said what he really had in mind was to create a marketplace for intellectual property. But during the Hacker News talk, he noted that Intellectual Ventures’ focus has shifted to supporting home-grown inventions, in part because a landmark Supreme Court ruling “made it almost impossible to enforce software patents.”

“By and large, we’ve done fine with both the inventions we’ve invested in, and we’ve done really well with the things we invented ourselves … I think I’ve got four or five hundred inventions, something like that?” Myhrvold said.

Myhrvold said he had no interest in going public with Intellectual Ventures, largely because “the actual process of being a public company sucks.” (That’s a sentiment that might well be seconded by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.)

Although Myhrvold didn’t address America’s current political climate directly, he did emphasize how important it is to support technological innovations – and the people who create those innovations, regardless of where they come from.

“It would be a very different continent if we had not drawn on talented people from all over the world,” he said. “Now, at the moment, our administration has decided that’s a bad thing. With enough of the wrong decisions, we could go the same way as the Chinese emperor that banned books and did a variety of other things to destroy their technological society. We could f— it up. I hope we don’t, but we’re one tweet away from anything these days. And on that sad note, I think I will end!”

Timothy Kitchen, co-founder of Thunderpenny and an organizer of the Hacker News Seattle Meetup, streamed Myhrvold’s presentation on Facebook Live. Organizers of the event also included Vlad Mkrtumyan, co-founder of Logic Inbound; and Jasper Kuria, managing partner of The Conversion Wizards, who moderated the Q&A. Here’s the archived video of Wednesday’s event.


Speaker Nathan Myhrvold — CEO of $6 Billion Invention & Investment Fund Intellectual Ventures and former Microsoft CTO 🙂

Posted by Timothy Kitchen on Wednesday, August 7, 2019

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