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Further Evolution

Fifty years of materials science and engineering have collapsed the dimensions needed for the transistor effect to the submicron level. Germanium has been replaced by silicon, which behaves far better at high temperatures. Diffusion of micron-deep layers of impurity atoms into silicon and formation of a glassy, protective oxide layer upon it, photolithography for etching delicate features on the silicon surface, and vapor deposition of metal contacts on top of this glassy layer began to allow mass production of integrated circuits containing many transistors and other solid-state components.

Once Bell Labs finally brought Bardeen’s surface states under control in 1960, by formation of the oxide layer in a carefully controlled environment, Shockley’s original field-effect approach returned to the fore in the form of the metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) transistors that dominate the industry today. Here an electric field is applied through the insulating oxide layer by charging a tiny strip of metal deposited on its surface; this field governs the current flowing in the silicon just beneath. Small changes in the electric charge on the strip can have a huge impact on this current-sometimes even blocking it entirely.

In 1965 Moore observed that the number of individual components on integrated circuits was doubling every year. He extrapolated this exponential growth for another decade and came up with an astounding projection: that the circuits of 1975 would contain some 65,000 devices. Now enshrined as Moore’s Law, his prediction has continued to hold true for over three decades, though the doubling period has grown to about 18 months. The most advanced chips today contain millions of transistors-each with typical dimensions of less than half a micron. And photolithography techniques based on ultraviolet light promise a further size reduction to nearly a tenth of a micron, or 100 nanometers. Chips with billions of solid-state components may soon become a reality.

Innovation Today

The crucial lesson to learn from the transistor episode is that basic research within the confines of a profit-motivated company led to a completely new and phenomenally valuable starting point for electronics. A close interplay between the practical and the scientific led to the discovery and rapid development of the physical process of transistor action, which could be so drastically miniaturized.

But postwar Bell Labs was a unique institution that would be very difficult-if not impossible-to replicate today. What Kelly described as an “institute of creative technology,” it concentrated the intellectual energies of half a dozen eventual Nobel laureates under the roof of a single industrial laboratory in New Jersey. However its parent firm, AT&T, was in a very special situation: it held a monopoly on telephone service throughout the United States. Therefore every time anyone placed a long-distance phone call, she was in effect paying a basic research and technology development tax to support the ongoing projects at the Labs. In return, many of the scientists and engineers working there considered themselves part of a “national resource” that had a responsibility to serve the national interest.

In today’s highly competitive business climate, most companies cannot afford research and development expenses that are unlikely to improve their profitability for years. Driven by profit pressures and 18-month product cycles, few corporations can afford to put together the multidisciplinary teams and allow them the broad research latitude that Bell Labs did with its solid-state group in the postwar years. And making their new technologies so freely available is absolutely unthinkable.

The federal government tries to help bridge the gap between science and industry by promoting technology transfer and advanced technology programs. But these are difficult propositions, fraught with severe problems and political disagreements. In today’s fragmented R&D environment, physicists at research universities and national laboratories continue to pursue imagined superstrings and leptoquarks that have no conceivable practical applications; meanwhile engineers at semiconductor firms focus on developing ways to etch ever finer features on silicon.

Partially because of this unfortunate dichotomy, innovations have difficulty reaching production. Recent breakthroughs such as fullerene nanostructures and high-temperature superconductors remain laboratory curiosities; compared to the transistor, which began to appear in hearing aids hardly five years after it was invented, these innovations are limping toward commercialization. A possible solution may lie within industry consortia-such as Austin’s Sematech-that are aimed principally at developing the deep pools of new technology their participating firms need to improve product lines. Basic research groups might be incorporated within such well-funded consortia. That way they would operate in the midst of a pragmatic environment that could also promote the fundamental development usually needed to turn scientific discoveries into useful products.

Another hopeful trend is that major companies such as Microsoft that have a comfortable share of-or a virtual monopoly on-their specific market are once again beginning to see the wisdom of investing in research. This is what occurred at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center during the 1970s and led to the development of such extremely useful information technologies as Ethernet, the mouse, and the graphical user interface. Under the leadership of Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft has recently taken a similar turn, devoting hundreds of millions to basic research and development projects in computer science. But I wonder just how much the firm will share its findings with other companies.

Whatever the case, it is important to recognize the true partnership that must exist between science and technology. “It’s not science becomes technology becomes products,” claims Moore in attacking the Bell Labs “linear model” of industrial development. “It’s technology that gets the science to come along behind it.” But the “science” he refers to is the narrowly applied science done in most of industry today-from which few, if any, radically new innovations and points of departure will ever emerge. Science and technology are like the two intertwined polypeptide chains in a DNA molecule. Each influences the other in a complicated, symbiotic relationship that would be greatly diminished if either one became the other’s handmaiden.

My central point is that we need to overcome the fragmented nature of today’s R&D enterprise. What characterized postwar Bell Labs and led to the invention and development of the transistor was that the full array of talents necessary for revolutionary innovation was to be found under a single roof, working closely together as a well-oiled unit under an enlightened management that understood how such multidisciplinary teams had developed radar and the atomic bomb during World War II. I hope that we will not need another such cataclysm to remind us once again of the value of cooperative research and development.

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