15 December 2004

Address by Bob Bishop (Chairman and CEO of Silicon Graphics, Inc.) on the occasion of the receipt of his Doctor of Science Honoris Causa. Hear Dr Bishop's speech.

Good morning Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, members of the Senate, ladies and gentlemen. I am thrilled by the events that are bringing me closer to this great university, to this city and to this State. And I am honoured by your generosity. Heartiest congratulations to all graduates of the day.

This is hard to believe: I am the native son of Port Adelaide South Australia, and yet here I am addressing the young lions of Brisbane; in the lion’s den, so to speak. I had better explain myself quickly and clearly therefore, or you may eat me alive!

All his life, my father worked on the waterside of Port Adelaide, and so I got a pretty good dose of working class humour along the way. My mother on the other hand, held the power in my family. She was the driver and a woman of real strength. But neither truly understood what their son had in mind.

What launched my technical career, and took me to the far sides of this Earth over the last 40 years, was an early fascination with amateur radio. This led into physics, mathematics and science in general. Ham radio in my days was like the Internet is today - it plugged you in, it gave you connectivity to a wide range of people, and it gave you access to a world of special knowledge. I still collect early generation radio receivers, and I still listen in on short-wave as often as I can, even today.

In the past 50 years, society witnessed the transition of electronics from radio valves to transistors to integrated circuits, and from analogue to digital, across the board. Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel Corporation, explains it all:

- twice the performance at half the price every two years: a price/performance improvement of 4x every 2 years; a price/performance increase of 1000x every 10 years, and a price/performance increase of one million every 20 years!

This means effectively, that supercomputers get compressed into laptops every 20 years; only to be replaced of course by even more powerful computers occupying the same floor space.

As good fortune would have it, I installed such a large machine here at UQ in 1969; it was DECsystem 10. In fact, parts of it are still here, located in the museum in the basement of the Computer Science Department. I get emotional every time I see it. Today of course, you would get an equivalent level of computational performance from a single microprocessor chip.

As good fortune would also have it, I have the privilege of being Chairman and CEO today of the American Company ‘Silicon Graphics’, also known as SGI. We make supercomputers, visual supercomputers to be exact, and several of these machines have been installed throughout the State, including in UQ, QPSF, QUT, James Cook University, ACID, QMI Solutions, Boeing Australia, the Air Force, and the Department of Natural Resources and Mines. I have suggested to Premier Peter Beattie and Ministers Tony Grady and Paul Lucas both, that we should in fact name Queensland the ‘Supercomputer State’ and not just the ‘Sunshine State’. Alas, I have yet to see this show up on the registration plates of the State’s automobiles!

In October of this year, you may be interested to know, SGI installed the fastest production supercomputer on the planet at NASA Ames Research Center in California. It was deployed by NASA for technical analysis so as to get their remaining 3 space shuttles back into flight asap, following the Columbia disaster of February 2003. This machine sustains over 50 trillion floating-point operations per second and has over 20 trillion bytes of main memory. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, a machine of this performance will fit into a laptop 20 years from now.

But I have skipped ahead of myself. Let me take you back to exactly 40 years ago, when in December 1964, I and thirty other Australian university students shipped out from Australia on a boat named ‘Tjwangi’, steerage class, leaving from the Brisbane River, less than a mile from here.

We were exchange students headed for Japan, and there we studied the language, the culture, and what were the elements of Japan’s remarkable economic success.

We learnt that Japan was actually ‘lead goose’ in what was in fact a V-shaped ‘flying geese’ formation, including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand following closely behind. Together, these countries achieved the East Asian Economic Miracle, as it is known today, over a 30-year period from 1960 to1990. Perhaps never before in the history of the world have so many people been pulled out from poverty and despair so fast.

And now it’s happening again as we speak, but this time it’s happening in China and India, much bigger fish, with 2.4 billion people between them, that is, 40% of the world’s population. Yet again, more people will be pulled out of poverty and despair in as short a period-of-time as the world has ever known. What a blessing it would be if Indonesia, our nearest neighbour and with a population of 210 million, would also get onto this fast track development curve.

In each of these two development waves since World War II, our Asian neighbours have climbed the value-added economic ladder using science, engineering and technological innovation. They have transformed their societies, they have built wealth, and they have developed enormous amounts of intellectual property along the way. Asian GDP is now on a par with European GDP and North American GDP, once the Chinese Reminbi currency is adjusted to a more realistic value.

But what has Australia done in this same period of time? Did it sleep? Or does it simply have an old economy?

Neither. Australia in its own quiet way has developed a friendly, open and resilient democracy, borrowing elements from Europe, Asia and America, as it sees fit. Australia is uniquely stable, and a microcosm of the world.

But what exactly is its mission? What is its vision? What is its destiny? And will Australia ever stand up and be counted? Will it push the envelope? Will it lead?

Let me ask you: why not build the world’s best society? Why not build the world’s best cities? Why not build the world’s best land and water management system?

It’s within our reach I believe, and engineering, science and architectural graduates of 2004, you can make it happen! Here’s how:

Firstly, bring engineering, science and architecture closer to society. Make the public more comfortable with its ideas and concepts. Engage in more public debate, and solicit more public support. Otherwise, your future projects will not be funded.

Secondly, overcome the tyranny of distance, both within the nation itself, the cities, the rural areas and the great outback, and between Australia and the rest-of-the-world. This should be achievable today, what with cheap high-speed telecoms, broadband, wireless and such technologies as voice-over-IP, TV-over-IP, and virtual reality. Perhaps we should strive for a digital democracy, a direct digital democracy, or better still, a direct digital republic!

Thirdly, recognize that Australia, perhaps along with Antarctica, is the world’s last significant reservoir of land. It is precious and fragile, as are its oceans and coral reefs. We must nurture it, protect it and defend it, while we are at the same time developing it in a sensitive and sustainable manner.

To do this, we must build a virtual model of tis country, a ‘shared virtual Earth’, so to speak. It must be multi-level, multi-physics, non-linear, and non-equilibrium. And it must embrace the atmosphere and the land, and what is beneath the land. And it must embrace the mountains, the rivers, the lakes and the oceans as well. And it must show urban development, mining, farming and fishing activity. Only when we have such a model with all of its interactions can we simulate the outcomes of different scenarios and safely act, knowing the consequences of what we are doing. Of course, such simulations must be viewable by the Australian public on their home PCs, and perhaps even viewable by people worldwide over the Internet.

Be assured that to out-compete in the 21st Century, you will have to out-compute. There is a tremendous challenge here.