'The Silicon Eye'

George Gilder
Wednesday, July 27, 2005; 3:00 PM

George Gilder's in-depth knowledge of the high-tech industry comes into full play in his new book, " The Silicon Eye " -- a look at the image capture-innovator Foveon Inc. The firm "can do for the camera what Intel did for the computer," writes Gilder.  Get the inside scoop on what's brewing in Silicon Valley.

Read a recent review of Gilder's book from The Washington Post Book World.

An authority on the high-tech industry, George Gilder is a best-selling author and a contributing editor for Forbes magazine. His articles appear in many publications, including the Economist, the American Spectator, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


Washington D.C.: You're a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, a think tank best known for challenging the Darwinian model of evolution. Most biologists say Discovery's "Intelligent Design" theory is based on religious belief rather than sound science.

Are you an advocate of Intelligent Design or Darwinism?

George Gilder: I believe that intelligence is the most powerful force in the universe and that it is foolish to imagine that it is confined to human consciousness. Computers, cells, DNA, minds are all based on information and information cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry. The Silicon Eye reveals the paucity of knowledge about human vision in biology, which cannot even explain the brain of a fly or how it eludes the swatter.


Anonymous: What is the status of Wavex?

George Gilder: I am a member of the board of Wave Systems Corporation of Lee Massachusetts (WAVX), which has conceived the next generation of security for personal computers. It is based on Trusted Platform Modules, which are endorsed by Microsoft, Intel, Dell, STM Micro, IBM and most of the rest of the industry. It has not made any money in 18 years, but it is now ready to rumble.


New York: You stay on the cutting edge -- have you come across other companies with technologies as innovative as Foveon's ?

George Gilder: One of the most exciting companies in the microchip industry is Impinj of Seattle, also founded by Carver Mead and his students. While much of the industry pursues Moore's Law into microchips that can serve well as cogeneration plants, Impinj makes an RFID chip the size of a grain of sand that contains an RF transmitter receiver, a power regulator and controller, a few score kilobytes of RAM and is entirely powered by the incident radiation of microwatts from a reader as much as 50 feet away. This mixed signal device costs between 4 and 8 cents rather than between 400 and 800 dollars like 80 watt Pentiums.


Vermont: Do you have a new book in the works?

What's next now that the Silicon Eye is finished?

George Gilder: I have books in preparation on Mead and Feynman at Caltech, on Information Theory, Economics and Biology, and on China and Russia as the new capitalist leaders.


Manassas, VA.: Hello Mr. Gilder:

Everyone loves you when you're up; few remain at your side when things aren't rosy.

How have you dealt with rebuilding your company since the Tech bust?

I sometimes feel like taking a chance with a new direction, a new business but fear stops me. You seem so committed to your ideas and direction, taking the good with the bad you stay on the cutting edge. What drives you to keep going? Any advice? Harry

George Gilder: It is difficult to revive a company like mine, when my reputation as a stock picker is regularly trashed in the press and on the net, though my picks now are actually better than ever (the GTR was the second best newsletter portfolio in 2003 and it is now surging ahead of the NASDAQ in 2005). Keep at it and the world will come round.


Virginia: Hello Mr. Gilder:

Out of all the technologies you must come across what made you focus on Foveon Inc?

Can you maybe compare their technologies to others? Thanks, Leslie

George Gilder: The Silicon Eye is in fact about a group of companies based on the neuromorphic researches of Carver Mead and his students at Caltech. The original vessel of the Foveon project was Synaptics (SYNA) which still owns 17 percent of Foveon and holds 60 percent of the world haptics device market (touchpads, touchwheels on iPods and other devices). The book is an entrepreneurial drama about how researches at Caltech into the human retina finally produced the world's best imager and how small companies such as Foveon and Synaptics can take on the Japanese giants and win (though Foveon's ultimate success is still uncertain).


Washington, D.C.: Could you explain in simple language why the Foveon image capture innovation is better than what's in digital cameras now?

How long before this new technology is taken up by camera manufactures?

George Gilder: The Foveon imager uses the silicon itself to capture the image and all its colors in every pixel. It is like Kodachrome film. All other digital cameras use the silicon as merely a light meter with only one color registered through filters at each pixel. The actual colors are guesstimated digitally on the basis of the colors of neighboring pixels. Thus the Foveon imager captures as much as three times more information at every pixel.


Washington D.C.: Thanks for your response on Intelligent Design.

I'm sure most scientists would agree that much remains to be learned in biology. But we certainly know much more than we did a hundred years ago, and it's not inconceivable that we will eventually figure out how that housefly eludes the swatter.

As a leading advocate of science and technology, shouldn't you back a theory (Darwinism) that is based on 150 years of scientific research, rather than one that essentially says, "It's much too complicated for us to understand, therefore it must be the work of a Supreme Being"?

George Gilder: Darwinism has nothing to say about information. What differentiates life is not biochemistry but feedback loops of information, intrinsically separate from the carrier. The way to study information is through information theory and computer science not through chemistry and physics. That is the lesson of the Silicon Eye. The great information theorist Gregory Chaitin has analyzed the laws of physics by reducing them to software code and has shown that they contain far less information than biological entities and thus cannot explain them. I find peculiar the the idea that the supreme instance of intelligence in the Universe is us.


Annapolis, MD: Sorry haven't seen your book yet. Is the big news about better, faster, cheaper, different imaging capability or advances in pattern recognition, AI, etc software tied to the imaging capability?

George Gilder: All of the above, plus the nature of disruptive innovation. One of the dramas of the book springs from Clayton Christensen's declaration that Foveon cannot succeed if it tries to make cameras. Carver Mead responded, "We are making cameras."


Alexandria, Va.: I don't know much about Carver Mead. What's his background? What other inventions or developments can he claim?

George Gilder: The emeritus Gordon and Betty Moore professor of science and engineering at Caltech, Carver Mead is the leading intellectual figure in the microchip industry. He researched and named Moore's Law; he developed the first functional fast transistor (the MESFET); he launched the prevailing hierarchical design technique for VLSI (very large scale integrated circuits). With Richard Feynman and John Hopfield, he launched a famous Caltech course on the Physics of Computation that has spawned a small industry of books. He has pioneered in quantum tunneling theory and written a recent book, Collective Electrodynamics, that shows that physics can best be grasped by dispensing with the concept of a particle. He has helped to found some 20 companies. I could go on and on. He is one of the truly great minds of our epoch.


Washington, D.C.: Was it too premature to write a book about this company, when it hasn't yet proved the marketability of its technology?

George Gilder: This book is not about Foveon alone but about Carver Mead, Federico Faggin (who built the first microprocessor at Intel) and Mead's students at Caltech, including the amazing Misha Mahowald. The book begins with the science of the eye and how it relates to the engineering of imagers of all kinds, including Synaptics devices. Foveon's technology has been proven in the Sigma 10 camera. The fact that Foveon's superior technology has not yet triumphed fully makes the book more interesting.


Reston, Va.: Are Foveon cameras being used today? Where can I see one in operation?

George Gilder: Go to For guidance to the world and cult of the Sigma 10 camera write For the Sigma Forum thread, go to For interesting use of the camera for ultraviolet effects, see


Herndon, Va.: Getting investors to put their money behind new and experimental technologies is very, very difficult. Venture capitalists, especially in recent years, have been less willing to invest in early stage/start-up firms. Does Foveon's experience in working with the investment community offer lessons to other entrepreneurs working with equally experimental technologies?

George Gilder: Venture capital is usually not appropriate for startups. The first test of a technology innovator is whether he can persuade his own circle to put up seed money. Once the demos have been done, the Venture capitalists join the fray. Last quarter $16 billion of new venture funds were raise, double the year before.


Annapolis, MD: Any thoughts on biomedical applications of this technology? Artificial eyes?

George Gilder: What Misha Mahowald discovered in the course of her researches is that much of sight is accomplished not by the eye but by the brain. Some 50 percent of cortical energy is devoted to vision. The creation of interfaces to the brain is still primitive. The first breakthroughs are happening in hearing rather than sight.


Maryland: I know very little about your work and background. Did see on your website that you cover the technology industry. Could you explain please what your technology newsletter covers? Thanks

George Gilder: The GTR is an investment letter that focuses on companies with unique innovations that promise outsized returns. In 1999, our list led all newsletters. In between, many of our telecom choices, such as Global Crossing and Globalstar, went bankrupt in the crash. But in 2003, with a mostly new list, we were number two among all newsletters. In 2005, we are now surging ahead of the NASDAQ.


Alexandria, VA: I believe there is an slr camera using the technology. Is there any video applications for consumers ready or near term?

George Gilder: I have no inside information about current products in preparation, but the Foveon imager is intrinsically superior for videocam applications, since it is a low latency, low power solution that obviates the complex step of rapidly clustering pixels together, each with information on just one primary color. With all colors collected at each pixel, the Foveon can capture motion images naturally.


Rockville, MD: With regard to Tuesday Vienna, VA question on ultraviolet photos. Clarification rec'd Wednesday from a photographer experienced with both Sigma SD9 and Sigma SD10 model cameras:

"While it may be true for the sd9, which has built in bandpass filter.

However, the sd10 sensor does not have the bandpass filter directly on the sensor. This moves to the sensor protector, that's why we can do infrared photo...infrared is beyond visible spectrum...and not only the sd10 can do infrared but also uv, which is also beyond the visible spectrum but in the lower wavelength side of it."



Washington, D.C.: What motivated you to write this book?

Can a regular person afford a camera with a Foveon high-resolution imager?

George Gilder: In the future, I expect many cheap cameras with Foveon imagers, which in volume can be produced for around 80 cents. But today the only available camera is the Sigma 10, which costs around $1200.


Vienna, VA: Is the microchip able to capture images outside the visible range in the electromagnetic spectrum?

George Gilder: This question was answered incorrectly by me yesterday. I was corrected by email: "Perhaps George should wander over to the Alt Vision website and read this paper, "Infrared and ultraviolet imaging with a CMOS sensor having layered photo diodes." Foveon marches on.


George Gilder: Thank you all for your fine questions on The Silicon Eye. I am reachable by email at and at Best, George Gilder


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company