Andrea Viterbi: we need another Sputnik Moment!

“It was the Sputnik moment in the 1950s and ‘60s that triggered a lot of US government’s investments in science and technology. Unfortunately after the Cold War the public commitment to fund basic research has been continuously decreasing”. Andrew (Andrea) Viterbi said so at the presentation of his memoir “Reflections of an Educator, Researcher and Entrepreneur”, published by Centro Primo Levi.

We talked about his long career as a scientist, businessman, investor, and philanthropist; and about his triple identity as a Jew, an Italian and an American.

Viterbi was born in Bergamo in 1935, but he and his family left Italy in 1939 after the racial laws against Jews. He grew up in Boston, studied Electrical engineering at MIT, then Digital communication at the University of Southern California. He is famous for his Viterbi Algorithm (1967) and for being the co-founder of Qualcomm (1985), one of the largest tech companies in the world. Qualcomm’s core technology for mobile phone communications has bettered the lives of billions: it relies on a method Viterbi developed for separating information from background noise. All four international standards for third-generation digital cellular communications use the Viterbi Algorithm, as do most digital satellite communication systems. That’s why Viterbi was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science by the President of US.

From March 2000 on Viterbi has been “an amateur venture capitalist”, investing in about 40 startups, with “a respectable outcome”, he explains in his memoir. About his experience as a VC he writes: “The ‘club’ of technology venture investors, of which I had become an unofficial member, is motivated first and foremost by making money and far less by the excitement of bringing forth new products and services through scientific and technological prowess”.

Which emerging technology is Viterbi more excited about? He said that the Internet of Things is maybe the most interesting technology today, but it implies a lot of problems about cyber security.

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