Big Think Interview With Michael Schrage

Innovation Expert
  • Transcript


Question: What is the major problem right now in transportation?

Michael Schrage: The major problem with transportation technology and transportation policy is that you have a battle between utopians who believe that they can get whatever they want, faster, better, cheaper, and the pragmatist, the hard ball economic types who say, "No, no, no, let's ban the car from the city, let's create calming zones, zero-emission vehicles," etc., etc.  You have a real dialectic, a real tension, and my view is, when you have that kind of schizophrenia, when you have that kind of chasm, not just of technologies and expectations, but of values, I think you get into a lot of gridlock--pun intended.

Question: Are there any promising advancements that will take us into that next era of transportation?

Michael Schrage:  Oh, my gosh!  There's so many things going on that are so exciting that it's not clear to me what's the best bet.  We have smart vehicles, smart devices, smarter people, better sensors, more information, the ability to have the technology act in a more nimble way.  We have the ability to play with tax policy and congestion charges.  So to me, the question is going to be, there's a tension between disruptive innovation and rapid iderative incremental innovation.  But if you have enough incremental innovation in a short period of time, you got a revolution.  You know, the simple model for that is like a Mapquest, or putting an accelerometer in an iPhone.  The fact of the matter is, between mobile phones, between iPhones, between Rim's, between GPS, every car in the world, every bicycle in the world, can be made smarter.  Heck, we can make every street corner, every streetlamp smarter, more nimble, more agile.  The issue is, what's the organizing principal underlying that?  Haven't a clue. 

Question: Do you think we need to build on what we have, or revolutionize mobility?

Michael Schrage:  Being an MIT person, I'm very, very sympathetic to that view of, gee, let's just start from scratch, let's reinvent everything.  But basically, I think it's a bunch of crap.  You know, that's basically like saying, gee, we've sequenced the human genome, let's reengineer human beings so they'll make less, they'll take up less space, they'll do less waste, they'll be more energy efficient.  As I said earlier, there's always going to be a tension between the incremental and the revolutionary.  Folks at MIT tend to self-select towards the revolutionary side, but ordinary human beings, typical human beings, human beings who have, shall we say, real lives, not MIT lives, are more prepared to have a mix of the disruptive innovation and the incremental innovation.  And that's how I think that's going to play out, particularly in transportation policy.  I don't believe people are going to give up on the wheels of a car for the foreseeable future.

Question: Is there something we’ll have to give up in order to get there?

Michael Schrage:  Well, you know, frankly I don't care if there's an internal combustion engine in a car, a fuel cell in a car, a battery in a car—I don't care.  My friends who are incredibly green care a lot.  Now, do I think they've actually done the math and calculated the carbon footprint of fuel cells versus batteries versus internal combustion engines throughout the entire supply and value chain?  Heck, no.  And I think that's where we're going to see a lot of the policy battles because there are all manner of ways of allocating costs and responsibilities for the carbon footprint of an automobile, for the carbon footprint of a person.  Or should we say the carbon tire track?

Question: Will we ever not have a congestion problem?

Michael Schrage:  We will always have congestion problems.  The issue is what's tolerable.  If you had told me that I would be on a 40-minute commute, I would say you're crazy, but I've gotten adjusted to it.

By the way, let's deal with that as an example. 25 years ago, being stuck in traffic was a horrible, horrible waste of time.  If you got a mobile phone, if your kids are watching TV in the back seat, it's not so bad!  It's not so bad.  Now, what transportation planner anticipated the impact of mobile phones in the car and TV screens, LCD's in the back seat?  None of them!  None of them!  And heck, I've read a lot of science fiction; I didn't see those scenarios being played out by Isaac Asimov or Harlan Ellison either.

Question: Where do you see intelligent transport systems fitting in?

Michael Schrage:  Well, they already are.  The issue about intelligent systems is almost like the question associated with governance, which is where do you want the power?  Do you want intelligent transport systems defined by centralization or decentralization?  It's like, do you want to consolidate power in Washington or do you want to distribute it out to the states, to the cities, to the individual people?  Are we going to end up with more efficient and more effective transport systems by giving people who are traveling more intelligence?  Or by giving the highway engineers or the tollbooths or the city center people more intelligence and control?  Again, that's a political question, that's not a technology question.  So I'm going to circle back to the way I began this, which is the real battle that we're going to have, the technology is incidental to the politics, to the aspiration.

Question: What role should the government have when it comes to transportation issues?

Michael Schrage:  Yes, I think the federal government should buy up, in addition to buying up the automobile companies, it should buy up the cities—no.  I am not a government person.  I'm more of a libertarian kind of guy.  I believe that the role of the federal government should be to facilitate opportunity and choice for people who wish to travel.  And the real challenge that the federal government in that kind of context has is, who do we subsidize, who do we tax?  Do we really want to penalize motorists in favor of subsidizing people who take light rail?  Or more public forms of transport?  Or can you make the roads, the cars, more environmentally effective, improve through-put, improve efficiencies, have the right kind of congestion in a manner in which you have an economic balance?  You strike a balance that the commuters are comfortable commuting and the people taking busses and trains are comfortable.

And that leaves out other variables, which is perhaps one of the roles of local government is to facilitate carpooling kind of arrangements, where we didn't have mobile devices a few years back.  What kind of self-organization can there be for the future of carpooling?  For the future of group travel?  I haven't a clue, but I'll tell you this--neither does anybody in the government.

Question: Should we copy London’s congestion pricing system? 

Michael Schrage:  I think London is an excellent example, as is Stockholm, of how not to do congestion pricing.  It is the laziest, most punitive form of taxation, regressive taxation, around.  It's operating, it's doing arthroscopic surgery with a machete instead of a laser beam.  I think the principal of congestion pricing, the principal of pricing for managing congestion, or access to space, to minimize or smooth peak times, completely logical, completely reasonable, completely rational, and consistent with the fact, you know, of my background in economics and computer science.

However, as is always the case, politics intrude and I think cities have become less interested in congestion pricing for improving the quality of life or improving the quality of traffic than as a means to raise revenue.  So I'm afraid we've come full circle back to the pathology of politics.

Question: What are some tangible examples of people working on very promising advancements?

Michael Schrage:  I'll take the path of least resistance, the easiest examples of incrementalism come right out of Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law, that is to say leveraging our enormously effective investments in digital media, virtually every car coming off the line, be it in Japan or Europe or in America, comes with a GPS system.  But you know, if you don't have a GPS in your car, you probably have one on your phone, so you can have GPS for a bike. 

I remember flying into Sydney, Australia, and there was a taxi driver, based on my interactions with him, I'd been in the country longer than he had, but he was using the GPS to navigate Sydney. He was a recent immigrant.  In theory, there is no reason for anyone to be lost.  In fact, not only is there no reason for anyone to be lost, there's no reason for anyone not to have the most efficient route to where they're going, to budget their time better and accordingly.  When you put that power of being to do route planning and time management in every single car, every single bike, every single bus, you would think that we're going to end up with not just incremental improvements and congestion, but disruptive, dramatic improvements.  People can make more intelligent decisions based on better quality of information.

But wait!  It gets better!  Once we start putting sensors on the roads and link them to the traffic lights, we can now create a different kind of an ecosystem where we can further improve efficiencies.  So these things can all build on one another.  Unfortunately, I am not clever enough to figure out what the ultimate impact is of these very complex interactions, but my bet is that that's where real innovation is going to come from.  Not just from discrete breakthroughs in technology, but from the interoperability of those breakthroughs.

Question: How viable are high-speed trains?

Michael Schrage:  Speaking as somebody who will probably be taking the Acela some time this week, it would be nice if we had higher speed trains, let alone high-speed trains. I think that when you do back of the envelope, capital internal rate of return calculations and the number of people moved and the value of these things, it really doesn't work out very well.  I am not an optimist on light rail or high-speed rail.  I think I would rather invest in a counterpart of Ryanair, than in fixed track locations.  I think it may work for Asia and Europe, but people are closer together, the city densities are different, the lifestyles are different, the cultures are different.  And I'm one of these old fashioned people who take culture and lifestyle differences very seriously.

I believe that regions and states and cities should be doing experimentation.  But it's been my unfortunate observation that a lot of what people call experiments are really ways of throwing money at a problem.  One would think that California would have all manner of dedicated, faster rail.  But you look at the economic success that Bart is not in the Bay area, despite the fact that there are good population densities, despite the fact that there's a variety of different ways to create complements between the rail and the car, and they haven't managed to pull it off.  And I don't think people in California are stupid, so there must be other reasons.

Question: How viable is shared mobility?

Michael Schrage:  Yeah, people are doing the Zip car thing, they're doing the bike thing.  I know that they've tried this in Paris and have discovered that sometimes people aren't as well behaved or as altruistic or as nice as they should be. 

Let me say something politically incorrect and I'm going to argue that some communities will do the shared thing very, very well.  If you held a gun to my head, I think that many of these things will go over well in Denmark and parts of Sweden, rather than in parts of Paris. 

I think shared mobility is a perfect example of something that technologically we could do with a snap of our fingers.  The problem ain't the technology, it's--altogether now--the value and the politics, it's the differences in lifestyles.  Do I think shared mobility will do gangbusters in Tokyo and Kyoto and large parts of Shanghai and Beijing?  You betcha!

By the way, the reason why it's going to do really well in Beijing and Shanghai?  Is if you don't share nicely, they're going to put you in jail.  That's just not going to happen in America.  No matter how much certain people want it.

Question: What is the history of concealing research in America?

Michael Schrage: The notion of what constitutes adequate sharing has always been a problem.  I mean, that's not an American issue, we're talking about a Galileo and Newton issue here.  Individuals and communities have understandably different notions about what they wish to share and what they don't wish to share.  This goes right back to playing in the sandbox, you know.  Now, in science, we have the cultural phenomenon of peer review and that begs two questions, what's a peer and what's being reviewed?  It's not enough if you're a sophisticated scientist, or frankly a sophisticated person, it's not enough to review the data, you know, what goes in and what goes out, you want to see the machine.  You want to see the nature of the experiments.  You want to see the code, now with digital stuff, you want to see the code, the software.  Was it biased in any sort of way?  Was there a bug that might account for some of the phenomenon that we're observing?

So there's a real tension here between what constitutes effective sharing and what constitutes the desire that many people have to make their science, their science.  To make their research, their research.  Not in a proprietary, ownership sense, but in the sense of, you know, it's a little too soon for me to completely open the kimono.

The complicating factor, just to build on that is, when you begin to inject market forces, when you begin to inject political forces, climate change, should I patent this finding?  Do I want to license this to somebody who will give me lots of money to do research? You've now created a mix of motivations and incentives.  Does it make more sense for me as a scientist to share my methodology, to show people how good my work is and to get credit from my peers?  Or does it make more sense for me to make some of it secret so that I can get private funding to continue the research along a route that I consider very good and important?

I mean, it is amazing, I'm a child of an academic, a child of a science academic, and I grew up in a very, very elite research university environment.  And I am astonished by what scientists are capable of getting away with, even prestigious scientists are capable of getting away with, in terms of withholding and sharing things.  The ideal, the platonic ideal, is that, you know, it's like a--let's create a nice phrase here—it’s like a kibbutz and everybody shares.  That science is a form of socialism and everybody shares the results and everybody shares their instruments.  And to a certain extent, large parts of that are true, but there are very large parts where it's 70-80 percent accurate, and in that missing 20-30 percent, there are a lot of issues.  A lot of issues.

Question: What can we do to fix it?

Michael Schrage:  You know, as I get older, I have come to the conclusion that there are certain kinds of problems you don't look for solutions, you look for approaches.  And if you asked me with a wave of the hands, what would be the one thing I would do to really encourage healthy sharing, because I can understand there's certain things that need to be withheld, or it makes sense to withhold or at least limit, I would make funding contingent upon disclosure rules.  It used to be, just to give you a real world example, it used to be that scientists, medical researchers could publish their work in the New England Journal of Medicine, and other medical journals, without disclosing that some of their research had been financed by pharmaceutical companies or device companies.  For completely understandable reasons, that concealment, that nondisclosure is no longer acceptable.

I feel that those same kind of pressures can be brought to bear to people who don't share code.  If you are running a computer model that predicts the earth is getting warmer, the atmosphere is getting warmer and it will go up 7 degrees Celsius in the next 50 years, that the oceans will rise, the coral will die, etc., show me your code.  Show me the code.  I don't want to just see the equations, show me the code.  Because, and I'm saying this as somebody who's written code, I know how you game the code to kind of put a thumb on the scale.  And some of these things are done subconsciously or unconsciously.

They have a saying in the open source development community, many eyes shallow bugs.  The more people that see the code, the quicker you spot the bugs and eliminate them.  It's good enough for software, good enough for science.

Question: Are there leaders in the open science movement?

Michael Schrage:  There are individuals who are leaders.  There are certain, because I think the Royal Society in the UK has done a better job than our own AAAS of aggressively and energetically promoting disclosure and sharing of code.  That's not to say that the AAAS has done a bad job, I actually believe that there are forces there where they're trying to push for more openness in science.  But established institutions, particularly research universities and the tenured faculty therein, I think, should step up. 

Question: What would be the incentive for scientists to disclose research?

Michael Schrage:  They already have, they already do it!  It's really important that we deal with the premise of your question.  Many scientists have already been doing these things.  There are many cultures and sub-cultures within science where mentoring and sharing and helping people out and picking up the phone or sending, that's not an aberration at all.  I'm not asking people to do things that are inimical to culture.  The incentives are oftentimes ego related and opportunity related.  People collaborate because it makes sense for them to collaborate.  We should be promoting free exchange. 

There are complicating factors, if your school says, if your institution says anything that you invent while you are on the faculty is our property, not yours, or your compulsory license for that, that creates tensions.  Should it be a 50/50 split?   An 80/20 split?  What should the split be?

So what we're talking about here are tensions and tradeoffs.  What we really have to address is, what are the reasonable and rational and fair ways to manage those trade offs.  We're not asking people to behave abnormally or against their best interest.  All policies that ask people to behave against their best interests are doomed to fail. 

Question: Who would make the rules? 

Michael Schrage:  Oh, again, you know, believing as I do in good governance and democracy, I would like government funding agencies to insist that taxpayers, when our taxes pay for something, when Europeans' taxes pay for something, when Asian taxpayers pay for something, that these publicly-funded science funders, foundations, that they make it a condition of their funding that people disclose in the manner that makes sense.  Not just the findings, but the code.  It should be throughout the value change of knowledge and discovery, not just black box.

Question: Wouldn’t we still have the problem of privately funded research?

Michael Schrage:  No.  No.  If people want to, if you have something, you know, now again, this is turning into an economics kind of conversation, which I'm quite comfortable having. Here is Apple, if Apple versus Google, okay?  Apple has decided to, and Facebook, these companies have what we would call walled gardens.  They limit the amount of interoperability and sharing.  There are some walls, there are some windows.  Okay?  Google, more of an open source kind of thing.  It's easier to interoperate with Google.  Their business model is different, they want to sell more advertising.  What you want, if you're in the private sector, is what's the reason that we have to share and collaborate?  And this is the classic question, what many organizations have discovered amidst the digital revolution, is that it's more profitable, it's more reasonable, it's better business to share.  Not necessarily everything.  By the way, I don't necessarily want everything shared.  I just want to change, to use your word, I want to change the incentive structures associated with sharing.  I do not want proprietary to be the default position.  I want it to be a secondary or tertiary default.  I don't want it to be the prime option, I want it to be a lower down in the queue option.  I want the default to be, let's err on the side of being open rather than on the side of being closed. 

I'll give you a really good example.  If I were running the City of New York, if the City of New York came to me—now, there's a slight complication here, because of terrorism sort of issues, okay?  So we have to deal with, but if the City of New York came to me and said, "Michael, what's the fastest, best, cheapest thing that we could do to improve transportation in New York?"  I would say, "Put everything up online.  Let people be able to run analytics and observe how the subways are running, how the busses are running, what times are peak times for congestion, what parts have people figured out clever work-arounds.  Enable people to have raw data so they can run simulations and come to you with proposals for reducing congestion times, doing better link-ups between trains, subways, busses, etc., intermodal things.  Make it more transparent.  Make transportation more transparent.  We'll call it the Trans Initiative.

Question: Could crowd sourcing ideas help solve the transportation problem?

Michael Schrage:  Absolutely.  I think it would be a fantastic thing if the Mayor of New York, currently Mayor Bloomberg, who could bloody well afford it, instead of basically saying, "Nope!  Nobody can go into Times Square," there should be the, that would be a great idea, the Bloomberg prize in transportation.  Minimizing congestion design constraints for improving quality of transportation and quality of life, because there is such a thing as perverse outcomes.

I'll tell you a true story in that regard.  For reasons I won't bore you with, I became an expert in the history of traffic lights.  It is a true story that New York, for almost two years, tried to economize on traffic lights by eliminating the amber light.  They got rid of the middle light and they went from red and green because it would save, it would save money, it was cleaner, it was binary.  Let's just say that the accident rate went up rather significantly.  So always, you've got to come to grips with the notion that transportation isn't just about cars and streets.  It's an eco system that deals with people.  You know, people watching this, probably, it's worth their time looking at Tom Vanderbilt's book on traffic, because traffic is as much a story of human behavior as it is about technological innovation.  Prizes that come up with clever ways of aligning human behavior and technological innovation, great idea, fully supportive. 

Recorded on January 22, 2010