Air, Water or Food

Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011, 12:00am

by Semiconductor Industry Association

If I gave you three choices; air, water or food, and asked you which one you needed most in the next 5 minutes to survive, you’d undoubtedly say air. That’s a no brainer. Everyone needs air all the time. If I kept asking you what you needed to survive every 5 minutes you’d say air every time. But here’s the problem with that answer— eventually you’d dehydrate and starve. You need water and food too. You can’t only choose air every time, but unless you stop to consider what you’ll need in the future, you’ll keep choosing air because it’s the most immediate need in front of you.

This simple illustration conveys a powerful message. We have to think about the future. We can’t only live in the now or else we risk our very survival. By making choices that will only sustain us for the next 5 minutes, not the next 5 days, 5 years or next 50 years we risk losing everything.

This is how the SIA thinks about the survival of our industry and by extension the competitiveness of our country. We can’t only think about cutting budgets now, we have to stop to consider what will sustain us in the long run.  For the semiconductor industry that translates into funding for research and development.

Perhaps the best example of where this type of thinking has paid dividends is at IBM. This year IBM is celebrating its 100th anniversary, quite an accomplishment in any industry but especially in the technology field where companies fail every day.  The reason why IBM has been so successful is that they have had the forethought to invest in their future survival through research and development. They focus on continual improvement AND fostering disruptive technologies. This is why they are a global champion and leader of some of the most forward-thinking innovations on our planet.

To further underscore this point, last week SIA Board Member, Dr. John Kelly, IBM Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research hosted a discussion with policymakers on the importance of federal funding for basic research. Inextricably linked to federal support for research is IBM’s vision for the future and Dr. Kelly highlighted four technologies that will shape the next decade; Learning Systems, Fast Data, Exascale Computing and Nano Systems.

At the foundation of these transformative technologies is nanoelectronics, which seeks to create semiconductors that can operate on the atomic and molecular level. Current technology allows us to put up to 1Billion transistors on a tiny computer chip. Nanoelectronics will allow us to exponentially increase the computing power of a semiconductor by putting 1Trillion devices on a single chip. This additional computing power will enable the discovery of entire new ways of analyzing the world around us and will fuel continued breakthroughs in healthcare, biology, environmental impacts, energy supplies and societal impact analysis leading to untold economic and social benefits.

But the science behind nanoelectronics would not exist without federal funding for research and development. It would not exist if leaders 50 years ago didn’t have the forethought to stop thinking about our most immediate needs to consider what will sustain our future. 

The government can play a critical role in pre-competitive research, where private industry does not have the vast resources and funding levels that are needed to seed transformative technologies like nanoelectronics, and for years the federal government has made research and development a priority.

However, current levels for R&D funding have fallen by 2/3 since the 1960s as a percentage of GDP. If this declining trend continues, as a country we are sacrificing our future and the transformative technologies we are unable to explore and develop because we have allowed our immediate needs to overshadow our future growth. 

One thing is certain, to only think about our most acute needs will cost us sustained growth and our nation’s survival for future generations. Our policymakers would do well to look at IBM as a model for how we can move forward by working towards both continual improvement and by fostering disruptive technologies. This kind of thinking will be the food and water that will sustain America for years to come.