Bob Metcalfe Makes Internet/Energy Comparisons at UT

I attended a fascinating presentation tonight. Bob Metcalfe, one of the pioneers of the Internet, inventor of Ethernet and the author of Metcalfe’s law, has just arrived on the UT campus in the new and charmingly titled position of Professor of Innovation in the Cockrell School of Engineering. He gave his first lecture on Enernet: Internet Lessons for Solving Energy to a capacity crowd in the Avaya Auditorium. Metcalfe discussed some of the ways we have learned from the development of the Internet that might apply to solving our energy problems.  It makes sense that the Internet may help us by reducing waste in transportation and travel, transferring bits rather than atoms, to achieve cheaper and cleaner energy solutions. But there are also similarities or metaphors that may be used to gain a better understanding of our energy problems. First of all, the Internet has been in development for decades, not months or years, and we should expect our energy solutions to take at least that long, said Metcalfe. He pointed out that along the path of the history of the Internet, there were many divergent groups that have ultimately come together. Computing and communication were once completely separate industries, with separate regulations. Now, they are tightly integrated. Voice, video and data were separate media, now they are all converged. And this was accomplished via the Internet.

Metcalfe pointed out that both the Internet and energy have movements, complete with dogma, religiosity and color. The Internet was considered yellow, as much of the cabling was in that color. The color of energy is green, and Metcalfe spent some time debunking that standard. He made a few recommendations, both black and white were discarded (because they aren’t really colors), and ultimately settled on blue, because it’s the color of the ocean and most of the earth.

He talked a good bit about the idea of squanderous abundance, which reminds me of the scarcity vs. abundance discussions we’ve had in class, how abundance changes the scale of activity, provides freedom for creativity and experimentation. Perhaps our energy solution isn’t in conservation, but finding sources that are squanderously abundant.

The Internet was developed as a grid with standard architecture, various layers of operation, from the low level network operations to the higher level applications and social networking done by users. The Internet is a distributed system that required diverse teams of people to serendipitously work together.

In regard to research, Metcalfe described his ideas of the best place for research to happen. It’s not a company, because those with large R&D budgets are usually monopolies with no incentive for change. And it’s not the government. He indicated that universities, quite often funded by the government, were the best places to productively carry out research.

We were even visited by a virtual group participating in the presentation via Avaya’s (yes, the same company for which the room is named) web.alive product, a Second-Life type interface with avatar representation and audio. See the image below.

Metcalfe was very engaging, taking numerous questions from the crowd. One question seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds: “Why Austin?” – because it  has a Top 10 Engineering School, is warmer and has no income tax, plus he had a good time at an ACL taping with Don Henley; but actually because he had tired of working as a VC, and wanted to be a college professor, so this turned out to be a perfect opportunity.

We get it. Austin’s the best. That’s why we live here :-) We are fortunate to have Professor Metcalfe in our ranks here in Central Texas, and I look forward to observing the progress of his innovation position. Enjoy a few more photos and a short snippet of his presentation.

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