Recorded on Tuesday 4 June 2019 in the Hallstrom Theatre as part of the Australian Museum's Lunchtime Conversation Series.
Dr Terry Percival AM, a key member of the visionary CSIRO WLAN team who invented high speed Wi-Fi in 1992, trained as an electrical engineer and began his career in radio-astronomy. As Chief Research Scientist of CSIRO’s Telecommunication Division, he led the creation of new tele-health, distance education and media production applications for next generation broadband networks. Dr Percival’s contribution has been recognised with numerous local and international awards including the prestigious 2012 European Inventors Award.
Sue Saxon: I'd like to welcome you all to the Australian Museum and to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging. My name is Sue Saxon, I'm a creative producer here at the museum, and I'm very pleased to welcome you to this third session in the Lunchtime Conversation Series, exploring Australians who've shaped our nation, and who feature in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery. I trust you've all had a good look at that gallery, and if you haven't and you don't have plans for this afternoon, please spend some time there, it's very warm, and we have many objects to keep you busy all afternoon.
So over the past couple of weeks we've received really precious insights into the extraordinary life and achievements of Tom Keneally and Charles Perkins, with the promise still to come of hearing from exemplary Australians across medicine, art and architecture. But today we have a really special event with Dr Terence Percival AM, who is a key member of the visionary CSIRO WLAN team, who invented high speed wi-fi in 1992, and he'll be revealing the journey that led to this magical invention that has changed all our lives.
Today, Dr Terry Percival is joined in conversation by Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay. She was appointed to the director's role in April 2014, and of course is the first woman to hold this position in the museum's 190-year history. You may have noticed the impressive transformation program that she has led, initiated, which includes free general admission for children, enshrining that into government policy, constructing new award-winning spaces such as the Crystal Hall Entry Pavilion and Westpac Long Gallery, and establishing the Australian Museum's Centre for Citizen Science. She will also be leading the new $57 million restoration of the museum, so that's a very exciting project, Project Discover, coming up soon.
Please hold your questions until the end, I'm sure you'll have a few and there'll be an opportunity, but in the meantime, please join me in welcoming Kim McKay and Dr Terry Percival.
Kim McKay: Well, good afternoon everyone and welcome again back to the Australian Museum. It's good to see the people who've bought the series tickets to these Lunchtime Conversations come each week, thank you so much for doing that. And to those of you who are here for the first time, welcome to you as well. I'm sure you'll enjoy this amazing conversation today. When you think about wi-fi and how it's changed our lives and changed the world. And here at the Australian Museum we have free public wi-fi and it's really interesting because the young boys at Sydney Grammar next door in years seven and eight they're allowed to come in here at lunchtime. And they used to come in here just for the hot chips. And now they come in here for hot chips and the free wi-fi. And they're obsessed, you know, they're on those phones all the time, those devices that we can't seem to get out of our hands.
So this conversation I think is going to be very revealing for all of us on a number of levels. Firstly, I've got to admit that I am not a technophobe at all. I'm severely challenged by technology and yet when you meet someone like Terry Percival and understand the level that he and the team at the CSIRO were working on and leading the world…so a lot is going to be revealed to us today.
I have a little introduction first for you, Terry. CSIRO's wireless invention lies at the heart of what is now the most popular way to connect computers without wires. It's used in offices, public buildings like ours, homes, and coffee shops, where it's just commonly known as the wi-fi hotspot.
The invention emerged from the CSIRO's earlier pioneering work in radio astronomy, but in particular from the efforts of a dedicated, interdisciplinary project team. In the 1990s researchers John O'Sullivan, Terence Percival, Graham Daniels, Diethelm Ostry and John Deane created the technology for the high-speed wireless delivery of data between devices like computers and mobile phones over a network. The team's work made the wireless Local Area Network as fast and powerful as the cabled solutions of the time, and forms the basis for the wireless networking technology now used in billions of devices worldwide. And when we were chatting earlier, Terry you said you think it's about 10 billion devices now carry their technology.
These Australian researchers thus ushered in the age of high-speed, 24/7, wireless connectivity we now take for granted. By 2016 the CSIRO had licence agreements worth more than $500 million with 28 companies worldwide. Now, Terence Percival was a member of that ground-breaking team. He is an electrical engineer and telecommunications expert who has directed projects at many of Australia's leading information technology labs.
In addition to the CSIRO he has worked with OTC Australia (Overseas Telecommunications), and most recently NICTA, which is the National Information and Communications Technologies Australia. After completing his studies—I think you did engineering at Sydney Uni, yes—Terry spent several years contributing to the design and construction of major telescopes including the Fleurs Synthesis Radio Telescope, the Australia Telescope at Parkes and Narrabri and the Very Large Telescope Array, the world's most advanced radio instrument being built in the New Mexico desert. That was of course featured in the film Contact, starring Jodi Foster, for those of you who remember the Very Large Array.
Across his career Dr Percival has received numerous local and international awards, including the prestigious 2012 European Inventors award, which I love that Australians received that, it's just like the Eurovision Song Contest, isn't it, when you gate-crash into the European awards like that. He was elected a fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 2012, and was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2014.
In 2016, with the team leader John O'Sullivan, Terry Percival was granted the World IT Service Association's Eminent Persons award. They are only the fifth and sixth people to ever receive this award. So please welcome Terry Percival.
I'm just going to skip over the early part of your career for a minute, but I'll get back to that, and start in 1991 when you joined the CSIRO. It wasn't really too much after that time that the first significant breakthroughs in wi-fi technology were made. When you began with the CSIRO did you have any idea that you'd be working on one of the modern wonders of our time?
Terence Percival: Thanks, Kim. I think when we started we knew that mobile computing was coming. We had just purchased the first three laptops—the first laptop I'd ever seen in computers—which were about the size of a modern big laptop. But they had a 1.4-megabyte floppy disk, a little floppy disk, and a printer port and a serial port for the mouse. And that was the only way you could get data in and out of it. Oh, and the display was monochrome and it ran a processor at 16 megahertz, which is about a thousand times slower than what you can get today. So it was interesting. And this, I might add, was before the invention of the world wide web. It was just before that. So we saw these as interesting and we thought there'd be a future. But what happened was as we went a few years into the project we suddenly started to see mobile computing and little hand-held devices coming, and that's when we really knew that we had a tiger by the tail.
Kim McKay: And you must have known at that time that you had to speed up, yourselves, to be the first, because there were about 20 people around the world, or 20 organisations working on similar technology.
Terence Percival: Yes, we found that. There were some early products out there, and they were running very slow; they were running at a megabit per second or two megabits per second. There was no standard. And they were large, power-hungry, we called them soap-on-a-rope, because what you did, you plugged one part into the computer and then you had this cable coming on and you had this big lump sitting on top of the screen or sitting on top of your computer. So there was a bit out there, but to us it just didn't look like the future that we envisaged. We wanted something small, portable and low power.
Kim McKay: So when you say 'the future we envisaged', was this the team of the five of you sitting around having a glass of red wine on a Friday night, saying, 'What's the future we envisage?'
Terence Percival: I think it was us and a few of the commercially oriented people in CSIRO. We had workshops, corporate retreats, those horrible things…ours were actually quite fun because we were looking at the future, and we said, 'What's it going to look like?' And at that time no one really knew the concept of the wireless LAN as we know it today. It was all lots of white-boarding and, well, would you put a hub there? Would you put something in the ceiling? How would it work, what would you do with it?
Kim McKay: So let's step back a little bit. To get to be part of that team at the CSIRO meant you had to have had some pretty stellar experience in the lead-up. What got you there to be one of those researchers?
Terence Percival: Yes, I think it was my degree at Sydney University. I did my post-graduate degree at Sydney University on an instrument called the Fleurs Telescope, which is shown up here. In fact I've labelled it Badgerys Creek airport because in fact that little bit of road there was an airport built at Badgerys Creek during World War Two, an emergency landing strip actually at Badgerys Creek. The Nancy-Bird Walton Airport is about a kilometre down the road from that, but this was the telescope that we built at Sydney University. It's an array of 68 antennas. You can see there's 32, 32 and there's some way out in the distance.
So that was the sort of work we were doing, and these telescopes are large and distributed systems. This one is the one in New Mexico when all the antennas move up and down on railway tracks. They move about 30 kilometres down that railway track. And I also had worked on the Australia Telescope, which we built at Narrabri in the mid-'80s which only had six antennas.
Kim McKay: Had you been always interested in telescopes and space and tracking wireless signals and radio signals?
Terence Percival: I'd always been interested in understanding how radio communications worked, or trying to understand it. And we had sort of looked at it, and when I came across radio telescopes I thought, Wow, this is amazing. You're detecting the signal that's incredibly faint and is coming from hundreds of millions of light years away. So that's a pretty big challenge. You've not only got to just detect that the signal's there but you've got to map it. And I think recently we've seen pictures of the black hole that was mapped by this latest array. And you're making detailed maps of events that are happening billions of years ago and so far away it's unimaginable. So that is an incredibly challenging job which I really liked, building sensitive receivers. And I think I just put this slide in there to show that's the complexity we're talking about. This is the early prototype of one part of this receiver. That, by the way, is actually me. It's embarrassing.
Kim McKay: No, it's all right. You're not wearing the shorts, it's okay.
Terence Percival: Just out of interest, that's the sort of complexity of that little stuff we're showing there. That's a receiver and each of those boxes has something like that inside it. So the sort of complexity you've got is mind-boggling.
Kim McKay: So as a little boy, were you obsessed with electronics and pulling things apart and putting them back together?
Terence Percival: I think I was born with the engineer's knack. I was obsessed with pulling things apart; putting them back together I was not good at, so yes, I think we'll skip over that bit.
Kim McKay: So when looking at those very complex diagrams you put up there, and behind those are these complex algorithms to make all of this work—to the layperson, which I guess is probably most of us here, could you give us a simple explanation of how it works?
Terence Percival: Okay, so how does wi-fi work? I think the first thing we have to remember is there's a lot of confusion out there. There's a system called Bluetooth, which most of us know, and that's for communicating between devices over a short range. So it's designed to go up to ten metres at low bit-rate, low power. You get your microphone to talk to that or you get your wireless keyboard to talk to your computer. Whereas wi-fi is about connecting a device that's got significant computing power, like a phone or a laptop, to something out in the cupboard which is connected to the internet. So it's that freedom, that mobility, and you can go into a coffee shop and you can use it.
So what it's about is transmitting that data without a cable, without plugging a cable into the wall. What it has to do is transmit lots of packets of data to and from the internet. And there's millions of packets of data going back and forth when you're doing even something quite simple on your phone or your laptop.
So wi-fi has to find a way to do that. But there's many challenges. One is there's more than 50 people trying to do it at the same time. And so that wi-fi hub's got to allocate the data rates between all the people here. It's got to do corrections, it's got to make sure that the data is actually correct—you don't want to lose packets.
So that's the first problem. The second problem with wi-fi is it can go slow. In a room like this it's easy to go at a megabit per second, because you're sending a signal out, it may bounce off the wall. Radio waves bounce. They bounce off the wall, they bounce off you and me, they'll bounce off the table, the wall, the cupboards, trucks going past in the street. And what happens is they bounce off and they come back. So you may send a message, the first word in the message, and it gets to the wi-fi base station. Maybe three words later, suddenly that word's come back because it's bounced off another wall. And this is the problem that you really face in wi-fi.
The analogy we like to use is if you imagine a bathtub full of water, nice and still; you start a tap dripping. You get a little drip, you get these ripples coming out, but they bounce off the end of the bathtub and come back, and you get these interference patterns. And the same thing happens with radio waves, but when you're trying to go at 100 megabits per second, they're coming back and forward at such a speed that it's total gibberish, what you're actually getting. So it's overcoming those sort of problems that we had to solve to make wi-fi work fast and reliably. Everyone's eyes have glazed over already.
Kim McKay: Now, what I love about the team, you all brought different experiences and disciplines to come together to do this extraordinary work. There was experience in radio astronomy, system design, physics, mathematics, signal processing, network protocols and satellite communications, all coming together to try and work out the solution. And I said earlier it was 20, it was actually 22 other major communications companies around the world were trying to overcome the same problems. So what were the difficulties being encountered? Because you had decided to go much faster in terms of the speed that you were looking for the wi-fi device to deliver, weren't you?
Terence Percival: Yes. Other companies around the world were trying to go maybe up to 10, 20 megabits—25 megabits was a magic number in those days. And they were doing that by what we call an incremental approach. They were looking at what they currently had—little bit of a tweak here, bit of a tweak there, change some of the algorithms a little bit and try and go faster. We said no, we've got to make a quantum leap. We've really got to go 10, 20 times faster than that. So we had to go back to a blank sheet of paper and say, 'How do we overcome these problems?'
Can I just go back a bit—not only did we have a team with different skills, certainly five different personalities, and that made for interesting interactions. There was the deep thinker, there was the interrupter, there was the 'Oh, that's wrong', there was the 'Let's get on with it.' And I won't tell you which one I am. So we had a lot of personalities there, which really makes the team dynamics work well.
Kim McKay: I always think that, that if you have a team working together, having different types, if you're all of the same type of personality you're just going to get reinforcement, you're not challenging. So having that diversity is really great.
Terence Percival: Yes, so that really made us think about these things, and use some of the techniques that we'd brought from other fields, the work in radio astronomy and signal processing combined with the more traditional work from satellite communications. So putting that together we were really looking at how you could do it again, split it up, as we said in the video, which again is showing its age, now. It said 3 billion devices; it's now 10.
But previously we'd built hardware; John O'Sullivan, who was the other speaker in that video, had previously built what's called a fast furrier transform integrated circuit, which performs the furrier algorithm in hardware. It was the first time anyone had built a dedicated chip to do that. It was built for signal processing, for audio processing and also it was used in SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence…
Kim McKay: That was a bit of a game-changer having that algorithm, wasn't it?
Terence Percival: Having the ability to build that algorithm in hardware and make it go really fast really gave us the edge, because we knew how to do that, whereas other people didn't think it was possible. People had done it in software but it ran a thousand times slower than you needed to do the way we were doing it. So that really helped.
Kim McKay: So the phenomenal growth that's happened in mobile technology from phones, laptops, the game consoles people use—it wouldn't have happened without the invention of your wi-fi technology. And John O'Sullivan, who led the research, has described the wireless LAN as 'a glorious example of blue-sky research, solving a problem with much wider application than the immediate.' Why do you think the CSIRO were willing to take a risk on this research, and why this idea and not others? The CSIRO we know is constrained at different times by government funding, so what was it that made them latch on to this?
Terence Percival: What happened was interesting. The new CEO in CSIRO, John Stocker, came in in 1990 and he was feeling constrained, as I'm sure the Museum knows, about government funding continually reducing…
Kim McKay: Oh, no. Never have a problem!
Terence Percival: …and so he wanted to do some new things. And he put a corporate tax across CSIRO. He said, 'Right, I'm taking away one per cent of everyone's budget, and we're going to put it in a pool and we want proposals for that.' And so we did that, and our division put in a proposal to build wireless communications, not just for wireless LAN but also for wireless access, wireless links. And we won the money. I wasn't at the meeting, but when this was announced apparently the other people who lost the money were 'iridescent' was the word that was used to describe… A, because they'd lost the money; but B, because it went to us guys who weren't real scientists. We didn't wear white lab coats, we didn't have test tubes. We just did this sort of thing. So it was interesting, it was a good success story and he actually repeated that process three years later and funded some more research in telecommunications.
Kim McKay: So like anything worth doing, it's always mired in controversy at some level. And of course the CSIRO lodged a provisional patent in 1992, with an American patent granted in 1996. We were talking earlier and you said those patents only exist for 17 years, right? In the late 1990s the global standards body for Electrical Engineering, the IEEE…what do you call it?
Terence Percival: The I-triple-E.
Kim McKay: The I-triple-E incorporated CSIRO's patent into an industry-wide standard for WLAN. However, there were stumbling blocks, and over several years before the CSIRO finally saw the financial dividends of its work. So firstly trying to find a commercial partner for your work was difficult, wasn't it?
Terence Percival: Yes. When we had our ideas and we thought we'd come up with a solution, we knew that we wouldn't be able to just manufacture it, because we were a research organisation, so we wanted to get into a collaboration with a big industry player who would take our ideas forward.
So we went around the world visiting the big boys. We talked to Hewlett Packard, IBM, 3Com, Apple, Sony, NEC, NCR, AT&T, DEC, Tandem Computers among others, and we pitched our ideas. We said, 'This is the future. It's wireless.' The result was somewhat disappointing. We were told by several companies, 'Wireless, this is just a fad that will go away. No one wants to go that fast. 100 megabits? You've got to be kidding.' Then they looked at our potential solution. 'That's way too complex. It'll never work. It's too difficult, take too much power.' In fact I was even laughed at almost at one presentation by the head of a research lab in Bristol. Won't mention any names, but the interesting thing is that seven years later I met Colin, and he apologised. He said, 'You were right.' So I feel much better about that.
Kim McKay: That must feel good.
Terence Percival: That felt good. So in the end we couldn't basically get someone to work with us. So what we had to do was go ahead and build a prototype. And over seven years we had to build prototypes. We built this test bed that the photo was of. That was the first wi-fi box, if you like. Then we built a second prototype, and again it was smaller. And then no one was interested still. After this time we published lots of papers saying this is how it works, this is what it does, this is the performance. Still didn't get any interest.
We built it even smaller. And we still couldn't get anywhere, so the only way to get a commercial outcome was to build a start-up company, because CSIRO was getting sick of us doing this: 'We told you it would never work.' So a start-up company, and then in 1999 the I-triple-E adopted the standard, which was basically our patent and the prototypes we'd built, and then the company built a little prototype. It displayed it at a trade show in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, and almost immediately the company got bought out by Cisco for $290 million, and became the first really fast wi-fi product.
So that was a long story, but that's how we got there.
Kim McKay: But the CSIRO had offered agreements for the wi-fi technology to be used in products by anyone on 'fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms'. And none of the leading tech firms you mentioned wanted to do so. So what precipitated the decision by the CSIRO to sue Buffalo Tech company in 2005, and how did this drive the successful out-of-court settlements with the 14 other companies including Intel, HP, Dell, Netgear and Microsoft?
Terence Percival: Yes, it was tricky. Once the standard had been ratified, people started making products. So being a naïve young engineer I thought, well I've got a patent that covers that, so we'll just go and get some royalties out of them. The first lesson I learned: no one gives you money unless they really, really, really have to. And…
Kim McKay: That's what my bank manager has said to me.
Terence Percival: Unfortunately that's true. So we had to chase people, obviously. But first of all we had to convince the CSIRO board that it was worth investing millions of dollars in mounting a law suit. So we did that, and that's another long and interesting story, but we'll go through that. Then you go through the polite letters. So you have to send an official polite letter to each of the companies that's selling your product. That doesn't get you anywhere, you send a less polite letter. Then you ask for a meeting. Then you get your solicitors to send a letter. Then they'll all meet with you. If it comes from a large, reputable, US law firm they'll all meet with you. But Buffalo didn't. They refused to acknowledge the letters, they refused to agree to a meeting. So they were an obvious target to sue them. Buffalo's headquarters in the US fortunately was in Texas, so we sued them in the Eastern District Federal Court of Texas.
Kim McKay: Scary stuff, really, for a bunch of Aussies…I mean I know you had US lawyers who were guiding you through this, but taking on a tech company like Buffalo at the time and being in the US legal system, it's intimidating.
Terence Percival: Yeah. It was interesting. What happened which made it more interesting was Buffalo, we took them to court, we won an order against them from the judge; it was a pretty low-key trial, And then suddenly CSIRO received a raft of counter-suits. We were sued by all the big names you just mentioned in California. They all said, 'We're suing you because we believe you're about to sue us.' And that's when it really got interesting, because you got the biggest companies in the world suing you. Fortunately we were able to get the cases transferred back to Texas; all the cases went to Texas because our argument was the judge had already seen it all, so they didn't need to re-educate the judge. And we had to start a major law suit.
So the first thing you've got to do is you've got to be prepared to spend a lot of time on an aeroplane and in Texas. So there's the court building in Tyler, Texas. That's me about to go in to the lion's den in front of Leonard Davis, the chief judge of the federal court, who was an intimidating man. Not quite as intimidating as the 17 lawyers on the other side who were there. Each company had one or two lawyers.
So it's interesting, but why did we win, I think is the question. The answer is we did everything by the book when it came to the patent. First thing we did was 200,000 pages of documents. This is what used to be the First National Bank of Tyler, Texas. It was vacant. We rented it for three months. It was next to the court house. That was our headquarters. We had a good legal team of our own, 20 lawyers and expert witnesses of various types—not to mention the paralegals who for some reason didn't get in this photo.
So it was certainly an interesting case, and in the end it was like the ten green bottles on the wall. As the case progressed the evidence was given. After three or four days, companies started to settle. And the interesting thing, the jury was sitting there but they were seeing the number of lawyers on the opposition side in the courtroom was dropping, because companies were settling. And by the end of the week there was only half the number of lawyers sitting there from the opposition, and we were all smiling. So over that weekend, in fact, all the other companies settled. The reason they settled is that they know they can settle for a reasonable amount. The jury may in fact come out with a much, much bigger amount.
Kim McKay: Which is extraordinary, yes. The last thing you ever want in the States is a jury trial, because…for lots of reasons. So that $500 million that the CSIRO has secured in royalties since then, your team didn't get that money, did they?
Terence Percival: No…you can tell by my suit.
Kim McKay: Which is extraordinary when you think about it in Australia, you were all employees of the CSIRO at the time. And while I think you said you did get a little bonus…
Terence Percival: Reasonable bonus.
Kim McKay: A reasonable bonus, thank God, which was not negotiated up front, which is even better, I think, that the CSIRO were sensible enough to give you all a bonus. But that $500 million has actually gone into a fund, as we heard earlier, for young scientists.
Terence Percival: Yes, that's right. Half the money went into CSIRO general revenue, if you like, and the other half went into what's called the Science and Industry Endowment Fund. It's an interesting fund. It was set up 85 years ago. The commonwealth government at the time must have had a bumper year. They gave £100,000 to CSIRO to set up this fund to help young researchers and other worthy causes in the scientific industry. Unfortunately no one put any other money into it, so it disappeared fairly quickly, and had just been sitting around with a few dollars left in it until this money came in. And then CSIRO put $200 million straight into the fund.
And this fund has been used to fund a number of young, early-career researchers. It's funded some research areas, some chairs at universities. And what I think's really good is that it's actually activated the fund, whereas some people have actually put in personal donations to the fund, and recently the NSW government put in $10 million to the fund. They thought it was such a good thing. And the fund goes for obviously due diligence and processes to make sure that the money goes to very deserving causes. So that's been a good outcome of this.
Kim McKay: It sure has. Did the CSIRO learn anything through the legal battle and the court case, to ensure it protects its inventions in the future?
Terence Percival: I think it's been an interesting process for CSIRO and I think it's scared a lot of people. They were pursuing another court case at the time, which didn't get good results. So I'm not sure that it's really had the impact that I would have liked to have seen, because it is scary to go through that process and I think what we didn't mention, Kim, is 14 companies were in that first court case, but there have been four other court cases since then to get extra money, and again, they've all been settled at the last minute. In fact I've cancelled several trips to the US the day I was due to fly out.
Kim McKay: Because they were settled. Fantastic. So I mentioned earlier that your work has been recognised internationally, and of course the wonderful European Inventor recognition. I think we have a clip of that.
Terence Percival: Yes, we've got a clip of this, and this is, I must add, we got, out of the blue, a letter from the European patent office inviting us to Copenhagen, and I thought I was into something like a cross between The Bridge and Borgen, Nordic noir, because I was in Copenhagen and at the ceremony the presenter was a very gorgeous blond newsreader, who was actually the master of ceremonies. So I really thought I was in some different world. So we'll play the video, thanks, Scott.
So as you can see, I almost got kissed by a princess, but I didn't turn into a frog.
Kim McKay: Oh, we've got frogs here, we can…
Terence Percival: So we did get eventually a lot of international recognition, which was very satisfying. To me, the most amazing one was the I-triple-E, the Institution of Electrical Engineers that created the standard in the first place, in 2016 awarded us the Ibuka award, which for consumer electronics is basically an acknowledgement of our part in creating wi-fi, and it's named in honour of the founder of Sony, Ibuka-san, who put an endowment into this award.
Kim McKay: Now, winning these awards, it's great for you and the team, but it's great for Australia as well. We didn't really have a big reputation in this space beforehand, and this catapulted us onto that world stage. So how has your invention led to investment in innovation in technology in general?
Terence Percival: I think it has actually had quite a good impact. When I was in Silicon Valley doing these court cases and working with it I met quite a few Australians who said, 'You've really put us on the map, people are taking us seriously now.' But it's also had a big impact in Europe, and we were able to go to a European Seventh Framework Commission meeting, which is a big mouthful. In Europe there is no such thing as a level playing field. They fund huge research projects in the whole information communications technology space, which is a huge fund, billions of euros that are bid for by European member nations.
We went to one of these meetings and we put a big poster up saying: You have three pieces of Australian technology in your pocket right now. You have wi-fi (which they had to agree because we'd just won the European Inventors award), you have Google Maps (Google Maps was developed just down the road here by the Rasmussen brothers, a company called Where to Go, and taken over by Google), and the L4 microkernel (which is a little piece of software that runs on your phone the moment you press the on button. This was developed by one of my teams at NICTA and the University of NSW, and is in every Snapdragon processor, Qualcomm processor that runs most mobile phones and iPhones).
So we went there and we said these three pieces of technology are in your pocket right now. We want to join in. So as part of a bigger lobbying effort, Australia was now allowed to collaborate in these programs. We don't get any money, because Australia doesn't contribute any money to the pool, but we get our researchers heavily involved with a large number of research projects in Europe. So it's been really good, I think, from that point of view.
Kim McKay: There's a perception I think in Australia that our politicians, federally potentially, have not invested in innovation as much as they should have, that the CSIRO's budget was cut significantly at some time. And you were telling me the story of your own next project after this was slashed as well.
Terence Percival: Yes. National ICT Australia, or NICTA, where I worked for 11 years, had its budget removed by the Abbott government. And it was a great thing, we were getting going, we were creating start-ups, we had technology going around the world. Some of our start-up companies are still going gangbusters, but it suddenly got cut off. So this is short-term thinking. It's run its course, it's now successful, so you cut it. It drives me mad. But I think it's interesting, the cultural cringe is disappearing, but it's disappearing because of the younger generation coming up.
The young start-up mentality that you are seeing in Australia now is fantastic. You just have to point out companies like Atlassian, the two founders are now on Australia's rich list. They're billionaires. And that's really helped a lot. We started it but those guys have really done it. And there are other companies out there. ResMed, Cochlear are going gangbusters. Two more of the companies we created at NICTA, Audinate, digital audio networking, is now used around the world. A new medical implant company called Saluda doing spinal implants is about to take on the world. They're doing trials all around the world at the moment.
So I think it is slowly changing, but when I look back on my career I think of the number of times a bureaucrat or a politician has told me, 'We can't compete with Silicon Valley.' You won't create a new Silicon Valley but you can come close and you can compete. There are no prizes for coming second. That's the basic answer in this game.
Kim McKay: And when you look at the impact the wi-fi invention has had here, I mean look at the impact on healthcare, for example, that a doctor in a remote location can now communicate directly and look at films and make diagnoses. It's extraordinary, isn't it?
Terence Percival: I think it's part of the vision we did have. Health was one of our hot spots when we were looking at this: wouldn't it be great if you could look at the x-rays on a tablet at the foot of the patient's bed in hospital. And now they can do it, finally. In fact it's happened a lot slower than we would have liked and our vision had this sort of thing would be happening 15 years ago but it's taken a while. But it is happening and I think that's really great. I have done some more projects in tele-health and one of the projects we did recently is being used a lot for allied health care, which is something I didn't think of, and that's speech pathologists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapy to remote communities. And a lot of that is happening now remotely, using what we laughingly call a national broadband network. I can say that now I'm retired, I can criticise politicians left, right and centre, which is great.
Kim McKay: So let's talk about…no, we won't go into the national broadband network now. I mean the application—I want to talk a little bit about the future, because the future is everything for us, isn't it. That's why you said you were so inspired to work at the CSIRO with that team originally, because you were having fun, because you were focusing on the future. So what's out there for us?
Terence Percival: Well, that's always the interesting question: what is coming next. Obviously, we are now connected. People talk about the internet of things as being the next big thing. I'm a little bit wary of that, because I don't really care if people can read my gas meter remotely, they don't need to come and actually look at it, or the electricity meter. What's important is how that remote control can maybe help us, help the environment. We were talking earlier, Kim, I am absolutely horrified every time I drive through the city at eight or nine o'clock at night to see the lights on in every building in the CBD. The amount of electricity that's being burned and the wasted air conditioning—all those sort of things. So I think technology can be used to help that. And we haven't come very far in that space at all.
Kim McKay: Why do you think that's the case? Because it's common sense at any level.
Terence Percival: I think one of the things we discovered very early on in our vision for wireless LANs back in the early '90s is that they would be used for cable replacement. And basically people were talking about wiring up the buildings, and you've got these trays with lots of blue cable in them, and we thought, okay, it's going to stop that happening. But it turned out it didn't, the reason being the budgets were different. It sounds very simplistic but it was true. The building manager is responsible for certain parts of the building and the IT manager is responsible for expenditure in other parts. And so the budgets are not right, so the building manager, the maintenance, the electricity budget, the operation budgets, they're all sort of disparate.
Kim McKay: Yeah, they are. They are here, too.
Terence Percival: That's one of the things. It's not the holistic view as to what's happening. Maybe we need a carbon price. I didn't say that.
Kim McKay: Well, that's radical. I love meeting radical men in suits.
Terence Percival: That's why we were not so popular in CSIRO, because we wore suits.
Kim McKay: So thinking back over this amazing career that you've had, if you could have done something differently, what would it have been?
Terence Percival: That's the curly question. I think I would have tried to push on with the research that we were doing, because we came to a solution and we stopped. And we built it and we sold it. We didn't do the next stage of research, which was the next type of wireless LAN. The later versions, they use our invention, but they have different add-ons. And we didn't have the energy to do both at the same time, and so we missed out on a lot. If we'd done that the amount of royalties we would have got in on the next patent would have been about a billion dollars. So that's a regret, but that's life.
Kim McKay: That's life. I am so proud, honoured to meet you today, and to listen to you. And you and your colleagues are more than worthy of being among our 100 Australians who've helped shape the nation, because well you have shaped the nation, but you've shaped the world in how we communicate and what we're able to do. For somebody who started work with a telex machine in her office, with that white paper with little dots…I'd come in every morning…but I had this inkling there was something else out there. I was telling you that one of my first jobs was working on the solo around the world yacht race in 1982-83, and they'd just invented these Argos satellite transponders, which was early GPS. And so we were getting four times a day the satellite positions of the boats, which had previously been unthinkable, to get that. And so suddenly, here I am with the white paper on the ground, the white tickertape, but then being printed out on the telex machine were these latitude and longitudes. Look how far that's come. You're aware of that early technology. You were tracking early GPS, weren't you?
Terence Percival: Yes, I had I think what was the second GPS receiver in Australia at the National Measurement Lab CSIRO has at Linfield. And it was a box about this big and it cost $50,000. But we used it to synchronise the atomic clocks that we had with those in the US and Europe. And now you look at the GPS sitting in my pocket…
Kim McKay: And now there's that annoying woman in my car who tells me to turn right or left. It's extraordinary where we've come from and how we've arrived here. I have a great deal of faith in the future, and I do think your comment about the impact this technology can have on managing our environmental future is a big one. Of course tomorrow is World Environment Day and it's a day when we can all think about maybe how can I adjust my behaviour a bit, collectively, or write a letter to a politician or something. Maybe to those who are investing in innovation in our country and encouraging them further to do that, because I think there's something special down here that you don't find in other places around the world. There is something interesting, maybe because of our remoteness. It does allow us to be innovative and if we get more backing we can. Now I'm sure a lot of you have questions that you'd like to ask Terry Percival, but first let's thank Terry for all his work.
Terence Percival: Kim, can I just finish by apologising to the Museum staff, Sue and Claire, I was travelling around outback New South Wales and Queensland the last week and I was kind of hard to track down. We played telephone tag a lot of times, but in that time I managed to find a bunch of cockatiels, my favourite bird. But this reminded me of my final joke for the day.
Audience question 1: Thanks, Terry. I'm just interested in the driver of invention and you talked about a quantum change, of not incrementally increasing the speed but dramatically. And then you said you're sorry that you didn't progress with the invention. Of course then the royalties would have been a billion. So is the driver the commercial success, or is there an innate inventiveness that we experience, or is it commercially responsive?
Terence Percival: I think invention is innate. You really just think that what you're doing is something new and exciting. Doing something that no one else can do is what really drives researchers. Commercial success is always in the back of your mind, and it's something that comes. You don't set out to be commercially successful, you set out to try and solve a problem that no one else has solved. It's like building a radio telescope. You build a better one to discover new things. You build something that goes faster. But you want to solve problems no one else knows how to solve.
Audience question 2: Thank you for your talk. This is an NBN question but I'll try and keep it short, which is can you tell us one or two of the major ramifications that you foresee in the medium future due to the direction our government has gone with the NBN?
Terence Percival: Well, we can have another lecture on that. Look, I…health and education to me were the big drivers with the NBN. If you Google me you might find some work we did in the early 2000s where we actually linked at a gigabit per second with optical fibre a number of research institutions across Australia in health and education and media. And the fact that you don't have a ubiquitous coverage, you don't have gigabits into hospitals in Broken Hill, is really worrying me.
When I did work with the NSW Health Department we built what was called the world's first virtual critical care unit. We linked Katoomba Hospital to Nepean Hospital via an optical fibre, which we managed to get in, and we had five video cameras, HD, running in the emergency department at Katoomba and they were being treated from Nepean. Because Katoomba's quite a small hospital. And NSW Health kicked back on that for one reason. They said, 'Ah, but we can't do that for every hospital in New South Wales, so we can't pick and choose to give that service to one hospital.' And if you had an NBN that was ubiquitous, connected every little town, you could do amazing things.
Education, again, and especially early childhood education in rural New South Wales and rural Australia is a problem. The problem children—it's not their fault but there are children there who really have special needs. And every town does not have a speech pathologist, they don't have a behavioural psychologist that needs to do this. But if they can do that one or two hours a week with each of these children, you need that connectivity. It needs to be really, really fast, low latency, high quality to make the children pay attention. And they've done experiments on that and it does work. But getting it ubiquitous is the real problem.
Audience question 3: Thank you for facing down the giants, that's fabulous. Is the corpus of the endowment maintained…you said it had run down before the royalties went in. Is it now being maintained so that it will continue?
Terence Percival: No, it's being spent. The idea is to spend it fairly quickly, because if you don't spend it some government department will decide you've got too much money. They're looking for more things, and people are putting more money in, but you can't just have $100 million sitting there, spending the interest, in this day and age of economic rationalism.
Audience question 4: Yes, indeed, thank you very much for your presentation, very interesting. My name is Bill Bowman. 62% of the CSIRO's revenue comes from the commonwealth. How do you make the case to the federal government for future funding of CSIRO? Is it based on potential economic returns or is it based on the national interest? How do you build the case?
Terence Percival: Well, fortunately I don't have to anymore. I haven't been in that boat for a long time. We used to basically have to do it on economic returns. And the same with my previous organisation, NICTA. We used to pay money to large consultancy firms to produce reports that showed the economic impact of your research. And they churn these out, they know where to put the dollars, what you've done. And basically that's the only thing that's understood in Canberra, I think.
Kim McKay: And New South Wales. We pay money to large consulting firms to put business cases together to underpin every request. Which is okay, because it's your money that's being spent. So it's got to be justified. But it's a lengthy process, isn't it, and can be very disappointing at times, too. But great when you win.
Audience question 5: Hello Terry, thank you very much for your presentation. I think I understand you've retired from CSIRO, but you're still active in a private area of activity or employment?
Terence Percival: No, I'm completely retired. I've just had enough of filling in government reports in particular.
Kim McKay: But I hope not completely retired in that you're still thinking out there. I mean, your opinion matters when we hear you talk about some of these issues, and so I know you are still operating around the edges.
Terence Percival: Yes, just around the edges, but nothing major.
Kim McKay: Well, we're very glad that you did what you did when you were so active with the team, and it's a lovely example of like-minded people coming together and using their skills to really change the way we live. So thank you so much for joining us today. Please give Terry Percival another round of applause.
2019 Lunchtime Conversation Series: Australians Shaping the Nation.
Australia has been shaped by the remarkable work of many individuals whose achievements have resonated beyond our shores. In this second season of the Australian Museum Lunchtime Conversation Series, drawing on the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery, a stellar selection of distinguished Australians share insights into the inspiration behind their groundbreaking contributions, which have helped define the nation across science, politics, sport and the arts.
Lunchtime Conversation Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is available as a series of six lectures.