ANALYSIS

U.S. companies using R&D projects to craft an image

The Washington PostDecember 2, 2013 

Amazone Drone Delivery

Amazon's so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft research and development project aims to use drones to deliver packages.

AP

— Amazon.com's splashy 60 Minutes announcement of its plan to revolutionize package delivery — via drone — has already started running into skepticism.

Despite Amazon's familiarity with the Federal Aviation Administration, it'll be a long time before such vehicles will be cleared for commercial use, Wired magazine points out. Drone opponents are threatening to shoot them out of the sky. Also, is it really worth the cost of acquiring a big enough fleet of flying machines to deliver something in 20 minutes rather than 20 hours?

Delivery by robot might or might not be the future of commerce. If it is, it's certainly a long way off. So why would Amazon start talking about it now?

It's a tactic more companies are using these days: research and development as image-making.

In the 1970s and 1980s, innovation was part of the image of iconic American companies. Think Bell Labs, which took advantage of the comfort of its regulated monopoly to finance research projects that could go on for years, and spun off all kinds of ideas that became useful for society writ large.

These days, however, U.S. firms aren't investing in coming up with new ideas as much as they used to, as the Bureau of Economic Analysis' intellectual property index has tracked. Finland, Israel, Sweden and South Korea, as a percentage of their GDP, now spend more on R&D than the United States does. That has led some observers to fret that America's innovative juices have stopped flowing, which bodes ill for the economy of tomorrow.

In terms of R&D public relations, however, American firms are leading the world. Companies that want to position themselves as part of that new economy are much louder about what they're doing to bring it about. Take eBay's Paypal, for example, which recently tackled the challenge of interplanetary commerce. Yes, commerce between planets.

Or Google, which has proposed a grand plan to bring WiFi to the world with Internet balloons and has a plan to solve death. It's by no means clear that any of these projects will come to fruition, but in the meantime, the companies get a nice publicity bump for thinking way, way outside the box — taking moonshots, as the Googlers like to call them.

Amazon in particular could use the help: It's still not profitable and needs to remind its ever-permissive investors that all its crazy investments in warehouses and robots will prepare it for eventual world domination. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

These are fun experiments to think about. Who knows, maybe they'll lead to a better, more technologically enabled life. But until the real research dollars start flowing through the rest of the economy, it's not clear that the United States will maintain its tech dominance for much longer.

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