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Curtis R. Carlson '67

President and CEO, SRI International

An Interview by Laurance S. Morrison

A member of two Emmy-winning teams and a professional violinist, Curtis R. Carlson heads a 56-year-old organization that has been called "the soul of Silicon Valley." SRI innovations range from household detergents to the siting of Disneyland to the computer mouse to high-definition TV. Carlson spoke with Transformations about the interplay of the dynamic global landscape and the SRI passionate turn of mind.

When you look at the rate of progress around the world, what do you see?

In this knowledge-based global economy, where moving ever faster only allows us to keep up, we see the broader truth of Moore's Law: price-performance relationship improves by 100 percent every 18 to 24 months. Internet speed doubles in a year and content doubles in half that time. The way to thrive is to rethink and innovate, always faster, and to foster commercial investment in fundamental developments and discoveries at a significant scale so people everywhere can live improved lives.

What makes a good SRI project?

Our thoughtfully assembled multidisciplinary project teams devote their energy to important problems, not just interesting concerns. Our projects pose a fundamental need, present a sense of urgency, call for existing resources and, often, affect large numbers of people. Because we aim to change for the better the way life is lived, we strive to achieve not just cancer cures, but illiteracy cures. For a sizable subpar K-12 public school system, we developed for students a cheap, light, hand-held, interactive wireless device that works as a teacher's aide. We want our innovative solutions to advance the goals of our clients and partners because their consumers, in turn, can adopt and literally live with the resulting products and services for the benefits they bring. Much of our work has military applications and, now, homeland security applications.

How do SRI project teams function?

The SRI approach and the essence of the WPI Plan overlap. Important questions animate passionate people here 24/7. We propose and critique a short, tight, catchy, compelling picture of what we want to achieve. We call it our value proposition. It enables us to put our finger on exponential opportunity to serve basic human values, which is good business. We brainstorm, feel the tingle of a powerful idea, test its practicality, pigeonhole risk, and readily shuck such undesirable outcomes as unwanted drug side effects. We then position the innovation so its particular publics can embrace its value. Sometimes we spin out a company to lead a newborn industry in a marketplace where needs await satisfaction. We're engaged in large and comprehensive work, because it is fundamental. This springboards innovation. Innovation isn't luck. We see it as a managed process.

In big science, what is the government's role?

It can serve in its traditional role as a significant funder, and as a referee on ethics, although at SRI our process of innovation and value creation naturally tends to resolve many such matters. Science is embarked upon 'species evolution' and artificial intelligence. With the decoding of the human genome, scientists understand more fully the interaction of proteins. Biology can be employed at the information level. A family doctor may view DNA analysis as if it were a software program. We have gene therapy and cloning, and we now look seriously at producing embedded computer chips to monitor our health and dispense medications as needed. Government can help work out standards and procedures. All of us must be concerned with the consequences of our work and debate the emerging issues in depth so that we proceed with our eyes wide open.

Do you distinguish between the artist's intuition and the scientist's insight?

They come from the same thing. It isn't one "Ah-ha!' experience, but a series of incremental steps, little discoveries, a couple of bigger ones and lots of hard work in finding, or fashioning, order and coherence. When one is on to a really good experience in music or science, there is the same sense of joy and euphoria. I have played a Mozart quintet in synchrony with other musicians such that we were fused together. I had chills. At the end of the piece, we were silent, then we hugged each other. I see that in our SRI project teams. It is intensely satisfying to watch as others reach their dreams.

So what is your job?

I get to work with champions. Passionate people who prize their work and their goals. I champion champions. That's my passion.

Has your WPI degree in physics proven useful?

Physics was the perfect subject to study because it involves the basics for how the world works. Now when I think about the world I think about what is possible, about simple, fundamental ideas, about the building blocks of the ideas. I just wish the WPI Plan had been in place when I was a student. I would have loved it. I still look at the theoretical and the practical. In this, WPI offers a perfect balance. I'm drawn to fundamentals and how to apply them deliberately to make genuine contributions. That's why I'm here at SRI.

--Morrison heads a full-service communications firm based in Sturbridge, Mass.

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Last modified: Jul 25, 2008, 10:13 EDT
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