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Three Big Things ‘Back to the Future’ Got Right (Thanks to Government)

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Today is the day that Michael J. Fox’s iconic character Marty McFly landed in a future that Hollywood imagined almost 30 years ago in Back to the Future II. It turns out that many of the amazing things McFly saw in the movie have indeed come to pass—from 3D video to wearable technology.

But in celebrating our technological advancements, it is important to remember that none of these innovations happened by chance. They are the product of an enormous amount of investment in research and development—much of it seeded by the federal government. Since today also is the day that the White House is releasing the third iteration of its national “Strategy for American Innovation,” here are three prime examples:

Tablets and Other Smart Devices

The tablet computing props in Back to the Future II accurately predicted the miniaturization of electronic devices in recent years. The parallels between the movie and modern society’s use of tablets seem uncanny: from the way Marty’s nemesis Biff paid a taxi fare with his thumb print to the way policemen in the movie used a tablet computer to check the identity of Elizabeth Shue’s character, Jennifer. Perhaps the only major difference comes down to the size and functionality of the display screens—which the movie under-estimated.

Federal funding helped commercialize the core technologies that now power our tablets and other mobile devices. Though initially developed by private companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, and Texas Instruments, microchips were costly to produce. But NASA and the Air Force stepped into the picture, creating the initial market for microchips by purchasing thousands of expensive chips per week for space exploration and missile programs.

As federal agencies adopted microchips to support their growing computing needs, they pushed down the cost of production and induced further innovation, which kept pushing the limits of processing power. This virtuous cycle spurred the miniaturization of many electronic devices.

Early touch screen research also received help from the federal government through National Science Foundation grants and fellowships. For example, NSF grants funded computer engineer Wayne Westerman’s dissertation work on multi-touch capable surfaces in the 1990s, technology that Apple Computer and others would later integrate into their products.

Artificial Intelligence

Computer-generated stories headline the newspapers of Marty’s alternate future, as they are beginning to do today. News-processing applications use algorithms to crunch sports statistics, financial data, and other factoids into accessible reports, with the Associated Press publishing about 4,300 AI-generated articles every quarter. Though AI-generated articles may be a tad dry currently, they demonstrate the progress in linguistics software.

Initial efforts in AI depended on federal funds from the Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The first successful AI program conducted by researchers Herbert Simon and Allen Newell back in the 1950s was funded almost wholly by the Air Force, which also provided the necessary computer system. However, DARPA pushed AI research into the spotlight by providing the majority of support for such research from the 1960s through the 1990s. This laid the foundation for a golden age of AI research through multiple public research universities, leading to the diffusion of AI research across the private and public sectors.

Biometric Technologies

The movie also demonstrated fingerprint recognition technology that is in wide use today. Just as Jennifer got into her Back to the Future house through a thumbprint scanner, similar technologies now drive the biometric security features behind Apple’s Touch ID and the latest Samsung Galaxy series.

The FBI funded the prototypes for automated fingerprint recognition technology in 1975, and led further advances in biometrics through collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Post-9/11, the USA Patriot Act drove the push to develop more innovative methods of biometric identification. Anyone arriving into the United States in recent years probably has experienced the multi-finger scanners at immigration counters.

These examples merely scratch the surface though. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has identified 22 critical technologies where federal support played an instrumental role in spurring commercialization.

Unfortunately, in recent years, as part of the sequester, Congress cut federal funding for scientific and engineering research. In fact, federal funding for research and development as a share of GDP dropped to a historic low of 0.77 percent this year.

Back to the Future II offered a technologically exciting outlook for the future.  But if we want to see even more boundary-pushing innovations like these in another 30 years, it will require not only restoring federal funding for research, but significantly expanding it.  Forget the delicious dehydrated pizza that Marty enjoys in the movie. Think smart robots instead.

This blog has been cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

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About the author

Robert D. Atkinson is the founder and president of ITIF. Atkinson’s books include Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage (Yale, 2012), Supply-Side Follies: Why Conservative Economics Fails, Liberal Economics Falters, and Innovation Economics is the Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), and The Past And Future Of America’s Economy: Long Waves Of Innovation That Power Cycles Of Growth (Edward Elgar, 2005). Atkinson holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Oregon.