Dr John O'Sullivan, former CSIRO engineer; Dr Terry Percival, former CSIRO research scientist, 9 December 2016
ROBERT BUNZLI: Hello, and welcome to the National Museum of Australia here in the nation’s capital, Canberra. Welcome to our event today, which is ‘Wi-fi, wires and ways to the future’. My name is Robert Bunzli, I look after digital outreach programs here at the Museum. First of all, I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay respects to their elders both past and present, and to their future leaders coming through.
I’d like to welcome our onsite audience here in the Visions Theatre of the National Museum of Australia to this last event in the History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series. We’ve had a number of amazing panel discussions and lectures and conversations over the last couple of months that have looked at a whole range of the themes that are encapsulated in our current blockbuster exhibition.
I’d like to also welcome our audiences offsite at the Kiama Library on the coast of New South Wales, and also our audience at the Adelaide City Library, where they’re watching our internet stream. At some stage, they may have some questions, and hopefully they will be able to email those through, and we may be able to feed some of those questions into our discussion.
I’d also like to welcome perhaps our other internet – unknown internet – audience who are watching that stream.
Now, I’d like to introduce our very special guests this afternoon for this conversation. May I introduce Dr Terry Percival. Terry has more than 30 years’ experience in delivering ICT research outcomes, specialising in radio communications and applications for high speed networks. Previously, he was a laboratory director of NICTA [National ICT Australia], and chief research scientist at CSIRO’s [Commonwealth and Scientific Industrial Research Organisation] telecommunications division. While working at NICTA, he guided the creation of 10 successful spin out companies and the transfer of research outcomes into government and industry.
As co-inventor of technologies for wireless communications, he led the creation and patenting of technologies that underpin wi-fi. As a result, more than $500 million in royalties has flowed to CSIRO. He’s received numerous national and international awards, including the CSIRO Chairman’s Medal and the European Inventors Award. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2014.
May I also welcome Dr John O’Sullivan. John has had an extensive career in wireless signal processing and radio physics in both research and commercial contexts. He worked with the Netherlands Foundation for radio astronomy, leading the engineering team for the Westerbork telescope. At CSIRO, he led a research group in signal processing and later in wireless communications, which resulted in key technologies underpinning wi-fi used in 15 billion devices worldwide, we just got the updated number on that.
He led a team which developed a single chip, fast Fourier transform processor, which has found applications in military surveillance and astronomical applications. He returned to radio astronomy with CSIRO on the Australian Pathfinder, or ASCAP project, for the international square kilometre array radio telescope. He’s a winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, the European Inventors award, two CSIRO Chairman’s Medals, and the 1992 CSIRO medal for the development of fast Fourier transform technology.
Welcome, gentlemen. Those are extremely impressive CVs. It’s wonderful to have you here at the National Museum for this conversation, mainly on the development of wi-fi, but also later on, touching on where you see technology and wi-fi leading us into the future.
Our current exhibition,A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, and this exhibition is open until the end of January so if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you get along before then. For this exhibition, the National Museum chose your prototype equipment to be the 101st object in the exhibition. This is the National Museum’s contribution to the exhibition, and your equipment is part of the National Historical Collection.
I was just wondering, maybe you might reflect on how you felt when you heard that your prototype equipment was selected as one of these key cultural objects in the history of humanity?
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think I was a bit shocked when we got the phone call, the message they wanted to put it on display, and then I looked at the 100 objects that were already there. I did realise that one of the interesting objects, and an interesting choice, is a credit card. That’s very boring to display a credit card in a museum, but that’s because we’ve all got them in our pocket. It turns out, the other thing we’ve all got in our pocket is wi-fi.
I suddenly said, ‘Oh yes, no, it’s not a silly idea at all, it’s actually, it is something that’s changed the way’.
ROBERT BUNZLI: It’s transformative.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: There’s probably 100 devices in this room right now.
TERRY PERCIVAL: All competing with each other.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. Giving our wi-fi a bit of a beating.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. John?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I guess an honour, a particular honour when you see the sorts of objects that precede us there, and always mindful of the fact that we … or I, at least, am continually surprised at how smart people were in ancient times. There’s some staggering things.
ROBERT BUNZLI: The quality of some of the craftsmanship on those artworks from the time that they were is really incredible, isn’t it?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: The time spent on them. Maybe that’s something we can’t do anymore, we don’t have time, because of things like wi-fi.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Because we’re all looking at our phones.
You two are credited as co-inventors of wi-fi. I’m just wondering if you might be able to take us through how this project started and how you two came together or were you working in separate teams and working in parallel? Just give us a bit of a brief overview of those early days.
TERRY PERCIVAL: I’ll jump in. It’s all John’s fault, of course. We actually did our PhDs at the same university on the same radio telescope project, although John had left by the time I started. Then we came together.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Nothing personal.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. Then we met up at the CSIRO when the CSIRO was building the Australia telescope at Narrabri. By then, we’d often work somewhere else. I got a phone call from John in 1991, that was, I’ll never forget, I was painting my living room. I took a week off to paint the living room and I got this phone call, ‘Do you want to come to lunch?’ I said, ‘Yes, better than painting’. I went out and had lunch with John and some of the other friends, and he said, ‘I’ve got this exciting new project coming up.’ He said, ‘We’re going to build the world’s fastest wireless LAN [local area network].’
My first question was, what’s a wireless LAN and why would you want one? Back at the office, John showed me his laptop, he had a laptop, and I’d never seen a laptop before.
ROBERT BUNZLI: ‘91.
TERRY PERCIVAL: ‘91. I think I was vaguely aware of it, but I’d never actually used one or anything, and John had one. Maybe John, you want to say – what frustrations you had with it, I think you –
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. I think it goes back to around about 1990, a couple of years before that even. I was challenged by my boss at the time, Dr Bob Frater, ‘We need to make an impact. Would you like,’ – speaking to some of us, – ‘to turn your skills built up in radio astronomy to more commercially oriented research?’ ‘We need to make an impact,’ is Bob’s favourite term.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Turning that ‘blue sky’ research into applications?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Exactly. At that time, as Terry points out, laptops were starting to make their presence felt in business environments, access to a computer to take notes, things like that. In a research environment in particular, something called networks was beginning to make an impact. The network at the time was a pretty clumsy thing, it was a cable of about a centimetre in diameter that had to run all the way through the building and you would actually physically tap into it with a little screw attachment. That was the way you would connect to this ethernet.
To cut a long story short, we started to think, ‘Well, what if wireless networks existed,’ – they were slow but we started to think – ‘what if you could do a wireless network that ran at the same speed as the best wired networks? Then you could have all these advantages of the networks, access to people, lots of data, email, stuff like that.’ Before the worldwide web though, before browsers.
It was a bit of a leap of faith. Everybody that came on board came on board and bought into it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. You were proposing 100 megabits per second speed as something that might be achievable, which is pretty incredible given that even today, as we are wiring up the NBN [National Broadband Network], we’re looking at wired connections that are may be 25, 30 megabits per second. You were really thinking big.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. We had various ideas of how this might be used. We saw things like training videos, somebody working, a mechanic working in the bowels of an aircraft, people in lecture theatres being able to access information about the lecture. I think like so many of these things, you only see a piece of the picture – particularly, so many inventions were based on work type usage, but within the shortest possible time, it turns out the big, the killer art is in fact entertainment.
What we see now is social networks –
ROBERT BUNZLI: Build it and they will come.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. I heard an anecdote — not an anecdote — but I heard that you prided that you’d been working on trying to find exploding black holes, and I’m wondering if some of that work led to the way you were thinking.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Certainly, in a way, there are a number of things. I think all of us in the team, and this was a team. No one of us could’ve done it on our own, I believe. That was an important aspect. The reason the team was a good team was because we’d all cut our teeth working on different challenging problems. One of them for me was a failed experiment. In fact, a series of failed experiments that got ever more complex, looking for exploding mini black holes, these microscopic black holes that Stephen Hawking proposed might be left over from the original big bang.
ROBERT BUNZLI: That blows your mind, doesn’t it?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. If you were near one of these things when it went off, it would’ve blown your mind. We thought, maybe if they are there and Stephen Hawking was suggesting – the smaller the black hole, the faster it would radiate energy – and it would maybe explode. Martin Rees, another astronomer, Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomy royal.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Royal astronomer.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: In the UK. He suggested that it would be like an electromagnetic pulse. You might actually be able to see this over astronomical distances. We set out to try and find it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: You went to try and find it. Terry, I was watching an episode of Catalyst about this, and I took particular note because I heard you talking about these early days, and you had a little comment about the Star Trek communicators. It made me think how some of these popular culture shows, science fiction shows, sometimes actually lead the way, predict the way to the future, and they get people who are at that stage of development to think about applications that maybe they wouldn’t have thought about.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think that’s true, that science fiction writers are an interesting source of imagination and technology prediction. I think it was interesting, someone pointed out that in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the astronauts actually was using something that looks remarkably like an iPad. That film was what, 1971 or something like that. There are those predictions out there, if you look at it.
You’ve got to use that imagination, and the Star Trek communicator obviously is what we’ve got in our pockets today.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. Looks just like our phone, really.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Only not as powerful as our phones.
TERRY PERCIVAL: That’s right. Our phones do a lot more now.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. Maybe you could just tell us, this is a rather broad question, but what was it that your team did that was so great? I believe there were 20, 22 different research teams around the world working towards some sort of wireless solution to these networking problems. How was it that your team beat them all to the gun?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I think we’ve probably both got a take on this.
TERRY PERCIVAL: These pictures that are flashing up behind us show the various stages of progression we went through in the thinking from the original ideas that we come up with paper and whiteboards. People still use whiteboards, which is good. Not blackboards. We did that, and I think the fact that the target was 100 megabits per second, the device that’s on display, put in the Museum now, actually will run at 150 megabits per second. We really wanted to push it.
We weren’t afraid of pushing the frontiers of technology and using the skills that we’d developed in the various radio astronomy projects. We knew we could build complicated devices. I think the other 22 teams, there’s actually been a significant study done on the other 22 teams around the world as part of our legal proceedings that we’ve gone through, which we’ll come to later. They showed they were all trying to get just 10 megabits per second or 20, and they were struggling to get that far.
They were building on existing networks, and just doing incremental changes, whereas John, we said just ‘scrap all that and try and find something that’s really going to go fast.’
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. I’d second that. I think the 100 megabits per second was, I don’t know, maybe I’d like to call it inspired, but it might’ve been lucky.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Foolish?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Lucky or a foolish choice because that was the thing that meant we couldn’t rest on our laurels. We had to come up with something quite new. It’s all about reverberation.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes, I was going to ask you.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Radio reverberation. Once you get beyond a megabit or something like that, you really have to do something to solve that. I think with the small team, with diverse skills ranging from maths to physics to engineering, software, we argued with each other in rooms and in front of whiteboards and in corridors.
ROBERT BUNZLI: There must have been some real spaghetti on those whiteboards.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. Gradually, you’d say, ‘Oh, wait a minute,’ somebody would say, ‘what if we did this,’ and that would provide part of the solution and then that would uncover the next set of problems.
ROBERT BUNZLI: What were the key problems to overcome?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: From my perspective, one of the important ones was the idea that if you try to send the bits one after another, then you run into this reverberation problem full on. The first step was ‘what if we split the bits and send them together, but on different tones.’ Then one of us realised that actually, we had the technology to do that. That’s what a Fourier transformer did.
There was a sequence of steps like that. Terry, you’d probably see a different set of things.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think that was one of the things. Reverberation in the room, and the fact that you wanted to go 100 megabits means you had to do something totally different. We had to apply error correction. There’s also the classic fading problem that you get with your mobile phone. Sometimes you walk around the corner, it doesn’t work. We had to overcome those sort of problems, because that was part of it.
I think the solution we came up with in the end, which is on display downstairs, is now actually starting to form the basis of 4G and 5G networks. The solution we’d come up with is now scaled. It’s the only way to make wireless networks go fast.
I think if you look in the team here, the photos that are coming through, we started out with the first prototype, which is these boxes this big. Then we went around the world, John went and I, and John separately and I separately went around the world to various large computer companies, which we better not name. They said to us, ‘No, no-one wants to go 100 megabits.’ One person even, who was actually on our side, said, ‘Two megabits is the most you’ll ever get out of the back of a laptop.’ Another person said, ‘Wireless is a passing fad. That’s just one of those new fads.’
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: In fairness, we did come across one researcher in IBM research whose eyes were big as saucers as soon as we talked about this.
TERRY PERCIVAL: If you see, one of the photos here is actually us meeting with him – the photo of it, it’s obviously the oldest photo in there because of the clothes John and I are wearing – it’s got the names on it. That was a meeting at IBM’s research lab at CJ Watson. I think John gave the story, he scared me with it, he went there first, he said he walked in the corridor and there on the board are photographs of all their Nobel prize winners.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: As you drive up, there’s this building covering the entire mountainside.
TERRY PERCIVAL: That was IBM research. They love it.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: They had a budget cut bigger than the entire CSIRO budget.
ROBERT BUNZLI: It must’ve been a bit intimidating, I suspect.
TERRY PERCIVAL: He was, but he was a champion. He helped us. IBM decided to get out of the networking game, basically, and they got out of the laptop game in the end. That didn’t go anywhere. That was ironic that the one person who wanted to work with us was for the company that decided to –
ROBERT BUNZLI: To pull out.
TERRY PERCIVAL: To pull out.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Goodness. It’s a lot about the echoes and the waves. I imagine if you looked around this room, we can’t see them, but there’s just radio waves going everywhere on various frequencies. It’s making sense of that, and isolating those frequencies and putting the package back together.
TERRY PERCIVAL: And is interference coming from other? All those problems, we had to overcome. This made the solution quite complex. A couple of, even later on, people are saying, ‘That’s too complex, it’s going to be too big an integrated circuit, it’s going to be too power hungry. It’s just not feasible.’ That’s a good example, that’s why we built it. We had to build a chip to convince people that would work, and that’s one of the later chips we built, and later on there’s a photo of John and me holding up the first basically product that came out of this work.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. What was that moment when you were able to go, ‘Okay, we prototyped it, we can take this now and run with it.’ Was there a signal that inspired you to go, ‘Okay, we’re set to go to sell this’?
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes, I think there was. With this box, we were wheeling it around and we tried a large number of different parameters. The advantage of that first prototype is we could make it do anything. We could control all the different parameters, hundreds of different combinations. We found one that worked, that gave us the sense to go on and go around the world saying to people. It wasn’t until we actually built one that was a reasonable size and we had them sitting in the lab, and no matter what we did, it kept giving zero errors. That was the moment, that was in 1997 when we had that going, and we knew that it works, we can prove it, we can do anything. It’s going to work.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Zero errors.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Zero point zero zero.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Nice one.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I’m going to say from my perspective, I remember a series of eureka moments as you would see the answer to – as a team, we would see the answer to some part of the problem, and you think, ‘Wow, we’ve got something here.’ Then you go to a prototype. Then there were further important things for me. There was a company, Terry was one of the co-founders, a company started by Neil Weste and Terry and David Skellern, who were collaborating with us, a company that was Radiata. That company demonstrated the first chips. These are chips this size, that –
TERRY PERCIVAL: They’ll come up soon.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Those chips were demonstrated at Net World Plus Interop in Atlanta the week before the Sydney Olympics. They were the first chips to meet the new wi-fi standard.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Right. Wi-fi, did you guys come up with the term wi-fi? Was that a –
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: No. We engineers came up with the 802.11a standard.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Cool.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: The marketing folk took one look at that and said, ‘That will never fly.’
ROBERT BUNZLI: Okay. That makes sense. It’s never going to fly. I’ve been working on a project here at the Museum with these robots that we send around and we give virtual tours of the Museum. As part of that project, we had to upgrade the wi-fi, and I had to get deep into it. Those numbers and that terminology really does spin my head. It’s not really my thing. I suspect a lot of people in the audience and our wider audience perhaps get lost in some of the technicalities of it, but it doesn’t matter because we just have to hit ‘connect to the local hotspot’. That’s all we need.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: We’re standing on the shoulders of lots – lots of people put together complex standards. It’s incredible how complex, how much complexity is hidden from us all now.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. Just speaking of complexity, you then moved in, I’m sure there were other stages, but you then moved into this titanic battle with the technology companies around the world. CSIRO launched a test legal case against one company, and then everyone just counter sued you at the same time. Do you want to give some reflections on that time? You’d done the research and the work, and then now suddenly, this thing landed on you. That must’ve been a bit overwhelming.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think we need to just backtrack and point out, we did lodge a provisional patent in 1992 and then we lodged a final patent specification in 1993, saying if you want to build a high speed wireless local area network, this is the way to do it. Detailed drawings, the works, masses of legal phraseology about modulation means and plurality of devices, all those terms lawyers love.
This patent was granted in the US on January 23rd, 1995. Then that was fine. As John said, in 2000, Radiata showed chips that met the new standard, the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] had just agreed to, with a lot of input from us, that this was the way to do it.
Then people started to ship products. We had a patent that was on those products.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Once your technology was in the IEEE standards, that’s when it just started being used without payment?
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I might add that, before the IEEE issued that standard, they looked through patents and we informed them that we had a patent, and we explained it to them. On their website, they say, there’s a section, this standard, these are the patents we know about which you may or may not choose to go and licence. Our patent was the only one at that time based on that standard. We felt, we’d told the world about the patent, and no one was paying us royalties. So time to do something about it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. But you wouldn’t have known what you were letting yourself in for.
TERRY PERCIVAL: No, I don’t think so
ROBERT BUNZLI: Do you want to take us through that?
TERRY PERCIVAL: It was kind of – I was a naïve engineer. I thought if you’d go knock on the door, here’s a 20 page patent, your products doing it, let’s negotiate. Basically, you get –‘You’re from Australia’, you didn’t get a response.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I think the CSIRO board are to be congratulated for hanging in there, because it’s been a long process. Terry’s been involved in it right through.
TERRY PERCIVAL: It started in 2003, with trips around America. I didn’t do this – with CSIRO legal people going around visiting the companies, engaging lawyers, started writing letters. Then it went to trial, with one company, the first company picked itself, basically. It refused to just even negotiate. All the other companies do the stalling tactics. We took them to court and went for the court process. There was a judgement made, which they appealed, and then suddenly, eight large companies, and large we mean the big boys.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Apple, IBM?
TERRY PERCIVAL: IBM, Intel, Microsoft, counter sued CSIRO. Suddenly, they put a lawsuit on the CSIRO in California, because our original case was done in Texas, and California because they like doing things in California, and they wanted to sue us and prove our patent invalid. We again, went to California and said, ‘We’ve already done a case in Texas, so it should all go to Texas,’ which it did. Then suddenly, we ended up in the mother of all lawsuits in Texas with nine companies being sued by CSIRO.
All the inventors, John, myself, John Deane, Graham Daniels, Diet Ostry and a number of other people were deposed by their lawyers. Either we went over to the US several times and sat down in a room for days while they grilled us with questions, [or] they sent some of the lawyers out here to grill other people. Then it ended up, finally, after delays – if anyone’s going to pay you $50 million they don’t want to pay it to tomorrow though, if they can pay it next year or the year after or the year after– they’ll delay it.
We ended up in court and we ended up, in fact various shenanigans went on, and they ended up paying before the final verdict came through. They all paid up.
ROBERT BUNZLI: They caved.
TERRY PERCIVAL: They all caved. During the court case. It was quite funny, on the first day in the court case, there were ten lawyers there. The next day in the court case, there were eight, because two of them had already paid up and gone home.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I think technically it’s called a settlement.
TERRY PERCIVAL: A settlement, yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: An agreement was reached.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Gentleman’s agreement.
ROBERT BUNZLI: You may not be able to say, but which was the last company standing?
TERRY PERCIVAL: There is still an outstanding case with CISCO, which is an argument about – after a lot of shenanigans, they tried to prove the patent was invalid, it was obvious, they tried to prove that what’s called inequitable conduct by, in fact, by me and to a lesser extent John, that we had deliberately deceived the patent office in getting the patent. We withheld important information that fell over. They got the patent reexamined twice. This just kept going on.
In the end, they all – all the cases ended up being just about damages, how much money they would actually pay, what the percentage was. Again, it’s not just the royalty figure, there’s also damages because they didn’t pay. There’s one case that’s going to be finalised in May next year in Texas.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Then you can draw a line under that.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Wow. We’ve got rivers of gold coming into the Australian taxpayers account from this blue sky research and this pure research, this radio telescope, radio astronomy background that you both come from, that’s an interesting observation that these days, very much funding from everyone is often decided purely on the basis of something that’s going to deliver an immediate return. Do you have observations on how science funding or technology funding from the public purse is handled?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I’m certainly a great believer of, you need a variety of approaches. Blue sky research on its own, I don’t think will get you there. A mix of blue sky and more outcome oriented research is appropriate. I think we benefited from as much as anything, from the people who’d, as I said before, who’d cut their teeth on some of the difficult problems in blue sky research and other research. It’s the training of the people, probably, that’s one of the important things.
The other comment is, if you go ahead to do something whether it’s a small startup, technology startup company or a big research project, my experience has been, you can only plan so far, and a short way down the track you’re going to get blindsided by something you didn’t see, and you’ll probably change direction. I think you need to preserve the flexibility to change direction.
TERRY PERCIVAL: And don’t give up quickly.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes.
TERRY PERCIVAL: There’s a lot of nonsense talk at the moment about fast failure. A lot of people tried to fast fail this project. I even had one unforgettable conversation with a bureaucrat who said, ‘Look, we’ll just back down and let the rest of the world catch up, and then we’ll see where we’re going.’ You don’t do that!
ROBERT BUNZLI: Let the world catch up?
TERRY PERCIVAL: You don’t let the world catch up. You don’t slow down. If you’re ahead, you go faster. My favourite – Australians love sporting analogies. A question for the room is, who knows who Lorraine Graham is? Ever heard of her? You all watched her for 45 seconds in September 2000, chasing a lovely Australian lady in a green suit. She came second in the 400 metres. There’s no prizes for coming second in the technology and the research game. If you’re ahead, go for it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: You said before about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, which I think is a Newton quote, and you both come from a radio astronomy background. I’ve worked in science communications since I joined the Department of Science in ‘87. It’s always amazed me how perhaps unappreciated the radio astronomy community and achievements of Australian scientists has been over that time. I don’t think people really understand just how in high regard radio astronomy, from Australia, is held around the world.
Do you see that?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Australia has been one of the small number of pioneers, global pioneers, in radio astronomy. It came out of, for the large part, came out of radar in the Second World War. Australia under some inspired leadership from people like [Joseph] Pawsey, have blazed a trail. We’ve done – many have been right at the forefront in some of the major innovations with things like aperture synthesis, interferometry, we’ve got quite iconic telescopes like the [Parkes] Dish. I think on a per capita basis, we’ve punched well above our way.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Did you like the portrayal of Australian radio astronomy as in The Dish? Cardigans and pipes?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I found it a bit unfortunate that the Sam Neill character was playing John Bolton, who I’m told was one seriously smart guy. The Sam Neill character, as the scenes do, tended to play him as a bit of a –
TERRY PERCIVAL: Bit of a bumbler.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Bumbler.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes, he was. A nice guy, though.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: A story well told.
ROBERT BUNZLI: A very Australian guy. We’ll go to questions from the audience in a moment, so for people who want to have a little think about what they might like to ask John and Terry. While you do that, just a little anecdote, I was in London last year and I was driving the children of some friends to go and visit the Science Museum, and Archie, who was about 12, was sitting in the back seat. He was very keen to get there to see the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which powered the Spitfire and the Lancaster and other aeroplanes. He was rattling off British innovations and he essentially said, ‘What has Australia ever invented?’
Of course, I thought, Hills hoist, stump jump plough, it’s not going to be very impressive. ‘Oh, wi-fi.’ That shut up the comments from the backseat. I was just wondering what you think about people like me and probably many Australians taking this joy and taking a bit of reflective glory and pleasure from the fact that we invented wi-fi. Because you must feel proud of that achievement, I imagine.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes, I think it’s an important thing. Particularly the patent suit put Australia back on the map in Silicon Valley. Suddenly, they’re taking it seriously. A lot of US companies are now getting Australian technology, buying licences from the technology from organisations like NICTA where I was working and CSIRO licencing. It became a lot easier.
I think it’s interesting to note, there are uncovered stories out there. Google Maps is another technology that was invented in Australia.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Really?
TERRY PERCIVAL: People don’t realise that.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Oh, got another thing to say. Good.
TERRY PERCIVAL: The Rasmussen brothers had a little company down in Pyrmont in Sydney, they were doing mapping technology and Google liked it so much, they came and bought it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: There you go.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Google Maps is developed in Sydney still. They built the team up around that. There’s another example of an Australian invention we all use all the time.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes, all the time. We were unaware.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: There’s a lot of Australians in key positions in Silicon Valley and places like that as well. You mentioned the Rolls-Royce Merlin, I think very often, innovation is driven by needs.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes, like radar –
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Some of the Australian innovations, and there are plenty of them, they’re often driven by needs. In mining, we’re a global top gun in terms of the technologies used in developing –
ROBERT BUNZLI: CSIRO Data 61, which is the autonomous systems lab, essentially merged with NICTA, has many mining applications and has commercialised these things, 3D mapping of underground mine passages and those sort of things.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes. Big data is one of the things that is coming, or is here in many ways.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Sorry. We’ll just open it up to some questions now. Penny and Janae are going to walk up and down with some microphones. I will ask you to wait until you get the microphone before you ask the question. I’ll tell you why once we pick our first question. Does anyone have a question in our audience here? We’ve got a question down in the second row here. The main reason is, for our streamed audience, they won’t be able to hear the question unless you speak into the microphone.
QUESTION: Very well done there everybody. Can you possibly explain, I might be getting this wrong, this concept of – it’s packet arrangement, isn’t it, in the transmissions before and after coding, somehow, so it keeps everything in the right order? I’m not that familiar with – it’s got a fine beginning and end of certain parts of the transmission so it doesn’t get mixed up.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. Getting technical, I guess. Some of the drawings up here. Basically, you have to have a header at the beginning of a packet, and an end of packet identifier. The packets have to be of certain lengths. You can send short packets or long packets depending on the type of transmission. If you’re sending a video, then you send long packets because it’s lots of information, whereas other needs, you’d send shorter packets.
At the packet level, when your packetising the data, you’ve got to send it in packets because people move around the room and again, as people are moving around the room, the characteristics change, so again, you can’t just stream it, you’ve got to effectively resynchronise it, restart it all the time. It was one of the parts of our invention.
Within the packet, we also do what’s called interleaving or shuffling the bits around so the DR corrections works better.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Another question? Right down the front here, Janae.
QUESTION: Thanks. I was wondering what the royalty monies and the damages, what purpose they were put to? Were they put back into science?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: About $200 million was used to set up an endowment fund, and that endowment fund is being used to fund research and researchers around Australia, particularly young researchers. That was particularly gratifying to see, that this is hopefully priming the pumps for the next wi-fi.
Beyond that, the royalties went back into revenue.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Janae.
JANAE BRADFIELD: From the livestream. Elaine Bean from Adelaide City Council would just like to ask, at what point would you consider yourselves satisfied, able to sit on your laurels, where do you think wi-fi will reach its peak?
TERRY PERCIVAL: You should never sit on your laurels. I guess time has caught up with both of John and I, who are no longer in full time employment. We’ve drawn a line at that level. Wi-fi reach its peak? It’s still getting faster and faster. There’s different applications, particularly with high definition video, the 4K video streams. I should be talking to Adelaide, sorry.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. Hi Adelaide.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: There’s another aspect too, I think, technology becomes truly successful when you’re no longer aware of it.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Talk to Adelaide [inaudible]
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Technology becomes truly successful when you’re no longer aware of it. The plumbing and so forth, we are aware of it at some level, but we don’t spend our time worrying about it. I think wi-fi has probably got to that stage. If anything, it’s moving towards – it has moved towards the sorts of applications that we’re using on our devices. I personally think the thing that’s sneaking up on us is that these devices have in recent years become quite intelligent. Much, much more intelligent than we thought of artificial intelligence and things like voice recognition, is becoming almost as good as humans and lots of other areas, things being done that frankly, I couldn’t do.
ROBERT BUNZLI: We’ve got newspapers replacing journalists with programs that write our articles. It’s very hard to distinguish between a journalist written sports report and a robot issued one. We’ve got a question up.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: We can have bots generating fake news now.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes, they generate a lot of fake news.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Absolutely. We got a question there.
QUESTION: During the course of your discussion, you mentioned 4G and 5G, which I’ve always thought of as being wide area telephone communications, and we’re talking about wi-fi, which is something I use in my home. What’s the connection between the two, please?
TERRY PERCIVAL: What I’m saying is the technology that we developed for wi-fi, the methodology, the radio communication systems are now being applied to the wider telecommunications. That technology has now permeated into other areas. The techniques that we used on 2G and 3G couldn’t be scaled up to go fast enough for 4G and 5G, and they’ve come across with the technology that’s used in wi-fi.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Okay. Thank you. We’ve got another question, and then we’ll come down to this question here.
QUESTION: Just following up from the previous question. I think I’m curious as to, has wi-fi gone open source, or does someone own wi-fi still and is driving the technology forward, or is it out in the world and everybody gets to develop it from here?
TERRY PERCIVAL: The standards are, you’ve got to have standards to have interoperability, so your Samsung phone can talk to your Netgear router. Those standards are put out by the IEEE, which is the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, based in the US. They issue the standards. There’s a standards working group, working on making it go better and faster. The standards are published, anyone can build something to those standards, but there again, there’s a number of patents covering those standards now. Our patent is expired.
That’s the other thing that people don’t realise, that patent has a 17 year lifetime. Our patent expired in 2013. Wi-fi, as itself, the standard is there, anyone can build equipment to that standard. There are other patents out there that people do pay royalties on.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Those standards, by the way, have tended to be ongoing work. New standards are being developed, that presuppose the existence of existing standards and in some sense, that is open source, in that anybody can participate in those standards, standards making bodies. It’s difficult to get your own way for many others.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Must make it an interesting choice as to when you lodge your patent. You want to get it in before anyone else gets ownership of that idea, but you don’t want to get it in so early that your 17 years, seemingly a random amount of time, it expires before you’ve got time to commercialise it properly.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think the answer is get it in as soon as possible. I think it’d be a brave person to wait.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Lock it down.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Lock it down.
ROBERT BUNZLI: We’ve got a question.
ROBERT BUNZLI: There’s one up there, thank you.
QUESTION: All right. Do you ever think that wi-fi will make something like the NBN obsolete?
TERRY PERCIVAL: No. Simple answer, no. Optical fibre will always go a lot faster. As someone once put it, God isn’t making any more radio spectrum. It’s already crowded. It is really, really crowded out there. That’s part of what you got to make it as fast as possible. You need the backbones. The backbone’s running up, you’d be amazed what the capacity, the hundreds of gigabits on the backbones of the fibres going between the capital cities, going around your streets even. The amount of traffic on the internet is huge.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: One of the beauties of wi-fi, the original idea was, keep it small. You have a wi-fi access point or whatever you like to call it, and it only covers a small area, like this lecture theatre. That way, you only use the spectrum, the radio waves in this area, and somebody else is free to use it in the next building.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Think we’ve got time for one more question up the back there. Yes.
QUESTION: This wi-fi kicked off with a very clear goal of generating 100 megabits per second communication. If you had your time over again, could you come up with some other projects you’d think would be similarly clearly stated, that we’ll be discussing in 30 years’ time?
TERRY PERCIVAL: It’s an interesting question. It’s always tricky. I think some of the things of interest to me are more again, the applications building on these technologies. Telehealth is my big passion. Done a lot of work in telehealth over the years. Basically, being providing remote diagnosis to people. That’s a goal we set ourselves. We developed the technology, it hasn’t been taken up particularly well. I think the 100 megabits was a nice clear number, that helped a lot.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I usually answer a question, ‘what do you think’s coming next?’ with ‘ask somebody younger than 14’.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Snapchat them.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Or a sci-fi writer.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes, exactly. What do you think of the internet, like it’s this – this was a question someone asked me to put in here. You can see these two sides of the internet, where it’s a dark and dangerous place full of extremist groups and terrorists and fake news, like you said before, or is it this thing that makes the world smaller, brings us all together, makes us all more connected and productive and happy and nice? Did you have a reflection on that?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I guess my take is, it’s facilitated both the dark and the light sides of human nature, I’m afraid.
ROBERT BUNZLI: It reflects us.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: It reflects us. I do watch with some horror what’s happening with fake news and the way it’s influenced some recent events. You wonder whether the law has to catch up with some of these things, should we be free to say things that –
ROBERT BUNZLI: The nasty word, regulation, may be in some way.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: On the other hand, you’re already struggling under too many regulations.
ROBERT BUNZLI: How do you regulate the internet?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: We don’t have flying cars yet. Maybe just one or two, but they’re not commercially available. We don’t have hover boards that don’t explode. Is there anything else you see coming up? You would be talking with inventors and technologists all over the world, I suspect.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes. I think that the one problem that hasn’t been cracked is the home control, home networking control. People talk about the internet of things and all the data that’s being generated, I think a lot of that is overblown hype. I think the problem is, technologies haven’t come up with a way to make it invisible. I think John touched on this earlier. It has to be invisible. It can’t be all this mishmash of things. A few years ago, I automated one of our display areas at our place of work, and I had two very smart engineers working on it for three months to get it working properly with the lights swapping and things changing as you went.
That’s just crazy. I think that’s an area that’s going to have to change. I think the other area is education, is very important with technology. There was a big push about three years ago for open universities and online courses you could enrol at MIT or you could enrol at Stanford. That’s gone very quiet at the moment.
ROBERT BUNZLI: It has, hasn’t it?
TERRY PERCIVAL: I don’t know if it’s got … it’s got to be the way of the future.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: I think the sense I have is, a lot of young people are looking at online courseware, and it’s putting some big pressure on –
ROBERT BUNZLI: On the university.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Anybody but their number one universities, high ranked ones. It’s getting the accreditation. Anyway.
TERRY PERCIVAL: I think using the internet for access to information is so important.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes. That would be great for global productivity, lifting people out of poverty, education is obviously key. Education and health.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Australia’s dropping.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Yes.
TERRY PERCIVAL: More laptops with wi-fi in schools, that’s my answer.
ROBERT BUNZLI: Now that the royalties have expired.
TERRY PERCIVAL: Yes.
ROBERT BUNZLI: I think we’ve run out of time, haven’t we, Janae? Yes. Okay. It’s been a great pleasure having a chat to you both, and sharing your observations. An hour is obviously nowhere near enough to get into any detail. It’s been wonderful to hear your observations and your recollections.
Please join me in thanking Dr Terry Percival and Dr John O’Sullivan for being here today. Thank you. This was our last lecture in our History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series. Apparently, our podcast of the full series of these lectures will be available early next year, so watch out for that. If you missed some of the earlier ones, which were fascinating guests and fascinating topic areas, so those podcasts are available early next year.
Exhibition closes at the end of January next year, so get your skates on to the exhibition if you haven’t seen it. I’d like to thank our audience here today for your questions and interest in the subject, and to our remote audiences in Kiama Library and Adelaide City Library. Thank you for joining us today, and to our wider internet audience.
Thank you very much everyone. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon. Thank you.
Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018