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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 6, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 14
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

A Billion-Dollar IPO for Johns Hopkins

Not long ago, I read an article about the impact of Moore's Law — named for Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel — that predicts the doubling of computing capacity every 18 months or so. For many of us, the focus on this progression has been on computing power and the manufacturers' ability to give us machines that are ever smaller, faster and more robust. But another important byproduct of Moore's Law has been the increase in information storage capacity in a similar geometric progression. Imagine in just a few short years — as predicted in this article — that you will be able to store on your iPod all the information contained in a repository as big as the Sheridan Libraries. By 2015 or so, you will be able to have all the books in the Library of Congress stored on your handheld device.

"Wow! That's amazing!" I said. But wait a minute. Just because I can have War and Peace, The Mendelian Inheritance in Man and The Farmer's Almanac on my PDA doesn't mean I can effectively access all that information. That's why search engines, as primitive as they might seem, are so valuable — they are currently the only way for computer users to find and validate information in mammoth files measured in gigabytes, terabytes or even petabytes. (And what is a petabyte, anyway? Is it the reason we give our dogs rabies shots?)

One cannot observe the recent highly successful multibillion-dollar initial public offering for Google, a company created by a couple of Stanford graduate students, and not recognize the importance of search engine technologies in the new frontier of virtually limitless computing storage capacity.

And I also couldn't help but wonder, as I read this article, why we at Johns Hopkins couldn't do the same thing. Surely among all our talented students and faculty there must be the seed of an idea that could command an equally high premium in the commercial world. Rather than wait for something like this to happen spontaneously, I could charge our Office of Technology Licensing to be proactive and see if it could create a company that Hopkins could take public — and increase our endowment by more than a billion dollars. Think of all the wonderful programs and scholarships we could create with such a success!

Then the light went on! Full of Google-envy, I suddenly realized that we already have the ultimate information search engine right here at Johns Hopkins. It's one that is readily accessible and highly trusted. And it can be used to locate important references from credible sources, without getting a lot of extraneous garbage. Just think of what this Hopkins search engine would command on the NASDAQ market.

Therefore, any day now, two prominent New York investment banks will announce the initial public offering for, the newest and most powerful search engine yet — better than Google, Yahoo, MSN and AskJeeves by a long shot. Already traders have lined up across the world to purchase shares. Why this excitement? It's all in the discernment. What is so great about is that when you perform a search, say on "16th-century weapons of mass destruction," you will get only one or two dozen references — the ones that are really meaningful and helpful — rather than the 50,700 that came up in the Google search I tried.

What is this great technology, you ask? Well, JHUSL stands for the Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries. You see, our library has the most effective search engines yet invented — librarians who are highly skilled at ferreting out the uniquely useful references that you need. Rather than commercializing the library collections, why not export to the public market the most meaningful core of Hopkins' intellectual property — the ability to turn raw information into useful knowledge.

I hope by now you realize that any talk of taking our library public is simply to emphasize the point missing in all this Google mania: Massive information overload is placing librarians in an ever more important role as human search engines. They are trained and gifted at ferreting out and vetting the key resource material when you need it. Today's technology is spectacular — but it can't always trump a skilled human.

Have you hugged your librarian today?


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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