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Jan. 28, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 7

Features

Inventing the future

The very cool world of Nathan Myhrvold *83

By Joel Achenbach ’82
Published in the January 28, 2009, issue


 "For a long time I didn't know what to call myself," Nathan Myhrvold *83 says. "These days I put 'inventor.' "
Asa Mathat (asamathat.com)
"For a long time I didn't know what to call myself," Nathan Myhrvold *83 says. "These days I put 'inventor.' "

Nathan Myhrvold *83 has one of the premier résumés of the digital age. He didn’t merely work in software; he founded Microsoft Research and spent 13 years as an all-purpose sage and eccentric genius at the side of Bill Gates.  

He didn’t merely study physics and math; he studied them at Princeton, where the physics and math faculties are among the best in the world — and then he flew off to Cambridge for some tutelage at the feet of Stephen Hawking.

He doesn’t merely like to cook: He’s a master chef (and has worked in one of Seattle’s best restaurants) who once won a barbecue contest in Memphis. He doesn’t just take pictures: He’s an award-winning wildlife photographer. As for his well-known interest in paleontology, he’s no ordinary bone collector. He has enough fossils to stock a small museum. Put it this way: He has a T. rex — the whole thing! — in his living room. It’s 17 feet tall and 45 feet long. (“It gets your attention,” he says. “My kids grew up thinking it was normal.”)

Myhrvold at home, where his many collections illustrate his wide range of interests.
Gregg Segal
Myhrvold at home, where his many collections illustrate his wide range of interests.

Myhrvold, 49, is such a Renaissance Man that he might as well stencil those words on his business card. He’s someone who, if his cash flow got dicey, probably could make a pile of money just letting people listen to him brainstorm about the future of technology. He granted PAW an interview that lasted an hour and 45 minutes and barely skimmed the surface of his many ideas and interests.

But it’s a bit tricky pinpointing precisely who and what Myhrvold is. Most adults have jobs that don’t require elaboration explication. Not so Myhrvold. What would he put on a form under “Occupation”?

“For a long time I didn’t know what to call myself,” he says. “For a long time I would say ‘physicist.’ These days I put ‘inventor.’ ”  

He actually is something more complicated than that. He’s an innovation maestro, an inventor slash promoter slash entrepreneur. Among his most important inventions, he says, is the business model of the company he founded, Intellectual Ventures, or IV, an investment fund that’s similar to a venture-capital outfit — except that, rather than investing in startup companies, it buys patents.  

A standard venture capitalist gives money to people who’ve already demonstrated a marketable concept. Myhrvold is jumping one step ahead of that game, snapping up ideas fresh from someone’s mind. Some of them will prove commercially viable, others won’t. Intellectual Ventures owns 20,000 patents and patent-related assets, having paid out, according to a company spokeswoman, $300 million to inventors so far. The company then leases the patents, sometimes in bundles, to other companies. So far, IV has pulled in $1 billion in licensing fees, the spokeswoman said. The fund has $5 billion under management, with investors who include some of the world’s best-known tech tycoons — Bill Gates among them. Gates and others have engaged in IV-sponsored meetings in which everyone takes turns tossing inspirations against the wall to see what sticks.  

Myhrvold sees his fund as providing liquidity in the world of innovation. I suggest to him that his role is akin to that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy up mortgages and provide liquidity in the housing market. He does not warm to that comparison.

This is a controversial business. Critics call Myhrvold a “patent troll,” which, as you can imagine, is not a compliment. Although IV has never sued anyone for patent infringement, that possibility hovers over the business model.  

Myhrvold notes that IV has its own laboratory, and is actively inventing things as we speak — like blood filters, lasers, and a new way to create nuclear power — in addition to patrolling the broader world for ideas up for grabs. He has dozens of patents in his own name — check the patent office Web site and you’ll see such Myhrvold creations as “Plasmon switch,” “Photonic diode,” and the inscrutable “Intensity detector circuitry having plural gain elements in a cascade with plural threshold values.”

Invention has long been something people do as a hobby, but for Myhrvold it is a billion-dollar business, not to mention a means for changing the world. He’s taking risks, and indulging flights of imagination, but he’s also making a plausible bet that his portfolio of inventions will alter the way we live, and that, as he put it when accepting Princeton’s James Madison Medal in 2005: “The economies of the 21st century are going to be driven by the magic of invention.”

Whatever the future turns out to be, Myhrvold intends to own a piece of it.

Myhrvold’s firm operates in a pleasant, utterly bland office park in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. No one parking in the lot would think that the future is being invented anywhere nearby. But step inside the reception area and you immediately sense yourself in the presence of a curious mind, someone who is both CEO and eccentric-in-chief.

Display cases hold vintage scientific instruments, old-fashioned typewriters, and various carefully preserved beetles on stickpins (bringing to mind the remark by biologist J.B.S. Haldane that God must have an “inordinate fondness” for beetles). On one wall is a mounted cast of two articulated dinosaur fossils from Mongolia. Glance down a hallway and you’ll be staring at a strangely familiar, synthetic T. rex head, which turns out to be one used in the movie Jurassic Park.

Myhrvold can be found in a corner office jammed with more dinosaur artifacts. Dominating one wall is a large crocodilian.

“It’s a fish-eating croc. Fish-eating crocs always have long, skinny noses so they can slice through the water to catch fish,” he says — perhaps unconsciously paying homage to anatomical innovation.

Lording over the room is the skull of a fanged marine monster of the genus Dunkleosteus. A grown man could fit in its gaping maw. The affinity for dinosaurs and paleontology really is a love of stuff that’s really cool. Myhrvold has the perfect, well-practiced answer when asked why he’s a dinosaur nut: “You were interested in dinosaurs too when you were 5. The question is, why did you grow up and I didn’t?”

Now look again at that Dunkleosteus: Those fangs aren’t really fangs. They’re not teeth. They’re sharpened jawbones. Teeth didn’t yet exist on the planet Earth when this creature roamed the seas.

“It’s convergent evolution,” Myhrvold says, and traces with his finger the sharp edges of the proto-teeth. “Notice the bevel is different on each side so they would self-sharpen.”  

He adds, “After this, teeth were invented.”

But they were not actually invented, he quickly adds. They evolved. They emerged. There was no one drawing up blueprints for teeth. The market existed for sharp mouth accoutrements; nature innovated to fill that niche.

All of which raises a rather profound question: Were teeth inevitable? And what about the innovations in our own world — are they the result of carefully orchestrated projects, schemes, and hard work, or do they tend to bubble up from a million accidents and casual inspirations?  

“Broadly, overall, the way society works is emergent, and it is built on progress — it generally runs downhill toward something better,” Myhrvold says as we get deep into the philosophical weeds on all this stuff. The world is a better place now than it was 500 years ago, he declares. Driving that improvement is, he believes, technology. He’s an unabashed technophile. And he seems to have a strong libertarian streak.

“Creating new technology through invention is the single biggest value driver that our society has,” he says. “Humans grabbed the tiger by the tail when we invented agriculture, and it was one of the best and one of the worst things we ever did.”

Best, because we could feed a larger population and soon had urban centers, specialized laborers, surplus commodities, and various other things that made civilization possible and necessary. Worst, because in leaving behind the simple, nomadic existence we created a million cascading problems, the ultimate outcome of which is that the most forward-thinking people today spend a lot of time wondering how we can avoid destroying ourselves.

Many of the visionaries today talk of building a “sustainable” society, a word that seems to rile Myhrvold. “The most sustainable thing about human society is that we innovate,” he says. Later, he elaborates in an e-mail: “The answer is not to pine for a past golden age when things were better (there was no such place or time), but rather to ask how we can use more technology and innovation.” Change, he thinks, is intrinsic to our nature. The future will be different. Survival will not involve preservation of things as they existed before: It will require their creative destruction and replacement.  

Because this is what we do, as surely as that crocodilian on the wall snapped up fish.


 
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4 Responses to Inventing the future

Robert Halford Says:

2009-02-05 09:24:19

This is one of few times that the nation must invent the future for so many critical reasons; the ecology, the economy, human health and a better world sociology. Perhaps IV can be a positive factor in a timely manner.

John Clifford Free Spirit, spouse '81 Says:

2009-02-26 09:19:19

I believe companies like IV can help the Obama team solve the problems of clean renewable energy, efficient health care, and effective economic policies.

Wade Cain Says:

2009-03-30 11:02:53

It is very important that we as people of this world understand the gravity of tomorrow's future and its needs for new resources TODAY. IV is in the best interest of us all.

Rick Mott '73 Says:

2010-04-07 12:59:59

The man's 100% right about nuclear power. I've taken that to heart and started up a Web page: http://www.nucleartigers.org to push the University to go nuclear. There's a 4gen sealed, 25MWe reactor based on a Los Alamos design (originally SSTAR) which runs for 7-10 years unattended. So we should bury one next to the cogen plant by Baker Rink, and take the whole University "off the grid"!
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Creative mind
Watch a video clip of Nathan Myhrvold *83 as he answers the questions "Who are you?" and ""What do you do?" by talking about his latest fascinations.