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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

America – 15 years Behind World in Technology. Getting our Priorities Right

If the 78% of Americans who don’t have a passport actually traveled around the world they would be shocked at how behind we are in technology compared to other advanced nations.

Asia and Europe have more advanced wireless systems. Their fast trains make Amtrak look like it’s standing still.

The President had to ride into Washington on Amtrak at nearly pedestrian speed, while in China you can ride the world’s first MagLev train from Shanghai airport. The train can reach 350 km/h (220 mph) in 2 minutes, with the maximum normal operation speed of 431 km/h (268 mph) reached thereafter. It cost a little over $1 billion to build – chicken feed in the age of trillion dollar deficits.

An aircraft engineer once told me that Boeing spent more time worrying about making the seats two inches wider (to accommodate fatter Americans) then they did about improving aircraft performance. So now it is Airbus that has built the largest commercial aircraft (the 380), so big airports have to build new systems to handle them. A 380 is even being considered for the next Air Force One. Boeing needs to have a Concorde version that sips gas like a Prius as an answer, or we lose that lead also.

The Japanese carmakers were the smart ones: focusing on hybrid technology while Detroit focused on making cars larger instead of better and more efficient. A hybrid SUV would have solved two problems – the need for space for kids, dogs, etc. but also gets 30+ mpg.

The Merrill Lynch executives obsessed with $1 million decorating jobs “to feel right about their office” and Citicorp’s $50 million jet are more examples of leadership being focused on the wrong things.

The good news is that we have the talent and technology to produce 21st century jobs and turn this economy around if we got our priorities right. We have a huge technology base at NASA that could produce next generation improvements from health care to travel, if we woke up to it.

True story. A NASA engineer was in the hospital for a heart problem and began talking to Dr. Michael DeBakey – two worlds that don’t normally intersect. Dr. DeBakey told the engineer that thousands of people needed new hearts but had died before getting them because they had no way of providing a substitute. The engineer, from his bed, said “We have an impeller technology that drives the Shuttles engines that could work.” And sure enough, it did. Now we have people staying alive while waiting for a transplant because of NASA technology applied to a commercial problem. We need to bring these worlds together.

We are no longer alone in the technology forefront. We cannot afford to return to our complacent ways, focusing on making seats wider instead of using our ethics and entrepreneurial talent to make things better. American economic revival will also require us to stay on the cutting edge by building MagLevs, smarter more efficient cars, a computerized health care system, and a new global financial system that works to build business for all of us instead of pyramid empires for a few.

We need to get our priorities right and advance our technology base to be successful.

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