Materials and Critical Technologies
Materials are ubiquitous; all known living creatures are made of and use materials for food and shelter, and materials are used in almost all human activity - for example, in health care, communication, transport, entertainment, and defense. Their importance has been recognized explicitly by referring to periods of human development as the Iron Age or the Bronze Age.
Over the last century, humankind not only has come to understand the properties and structure of the materials extant in nature but also has learned to combine the atomic elements to produce artificial materials. At the same time, there have been significant developments in processing the traditional materials ranging from tanning leather to producing steel. In fact, researchers have reached a level of sophistication in working with materials that is dazzling, opening new vistas in their understanding and applications. For example, a recently invented scanning microscope allows one to image individual atoms on a surface and move them one by one to desired locations. To realize this, scientists have learned to measure, control, and manipulate spatial objects that are a fraction of a billionth of a meter. In parallel with this spatial resolution, scientists can now probe, using flashes of light, phenomena that occur over times that are measured in a millionth of a billionth of a second.
These and other developments have been documented in many studies, the most extensive and far-reaching of which was published in 1989 by the National Research Council.¹ This paper, however, will not try to present a synopsis of this or any other study. Rather, it will touch on the importance of materials from the standpoints of industrial development, national choices of technologies in a competitive environment, and the institutional settings necessary for success. More specifically, it will look at some of the underlying factors that drive technologies in which materials play an integral part, using examples from the health care, computers/communication, and transportation industries; at critical technologies-how widely they are known, what this means, and how nations respond to this knowledge; and at the evolution of research and development in industries and in countries.
THE FACTORS DRIVING TECHNOLOGY
Many factors drive progress in a given technology. This section will touch on some of these factors and in the process illustrate a few of the frontiers of research and development.
Health Care Industry
Diagnostic equipment provides an extension of human senses. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a relatively recent development, enables physicians to “see” diseased tissue. This and similar techniques for imaging the internal structure are relatively static-that is, the image is made before the surgeon operates-rather than being dynamic in the sense that the image can be made during an operation so that a surgeon can view the functioning of an organ to localize the area of disease. For example, a surgeon examines the very clear images of a brain tumor produced by an MRI and decides how much of the tumor and the tissue around it is to be removed. The surgeon's decision would be easier, however, if the brain activity surrounding the tumor could be monitored during the operation. Laboratory demonstrations have proven that this is indeed possible by mapping out the magnetic field generated by the brain as it operates. This magnetic field is very small-on the order of a billionth of the earth's magnetic field. Nevertheless, it can be measured with superconducting detectors.
This type of steady progress in medical diagnosis, driven by a constant need to improve diagnostic techniques, is largely founded on a broad base of research. The role of information technology in providing images easily comprehensible to the human eye is indispensable in medicine. The financial drive here is not so much international competitiveness as it is to supply state-of-the-art health care at manageable costs.
The technical issues at work in intelligent prosthetics, an area of health care that likely will grow into a multibillion-dollar industry over the next decade, are an understanding of the complex requirements of this technology, ranging from the materials that stimulate human nerve, muscle, bone, or cartilage, to the interface between the human body and the prosthetic. Today, this technical area is being addressed by small multidisciplinary groups in a university setting, leaving room for great technical innovation and financial growth while serving humankind. No one country has a commanding technical or financial lead.
A look at the integrated circuit reveals that the level of silicon device integration in transistors has gone from 1 micron a generation ago to 0.5 microns today. The metallic lines that will control the transistor of the future will be less than 300 atoms wide. These devices of the future already are being made in the laboratory; the struggle, on an international scale, is to produce them on the factory floor at competitive prices. The financial opportunities and risks are great because no major nation can avoid facing the questions associated with semiconductor chip design and production. Their use will be pervasive-from feedback control in prosthetics to voice recognition devices used to control such mundane subsystems as locks in houses, radios, television, scooters, cars, and computers. Every family will, in some form or fashion, own a silicon chip in the near future. As for the magnitude of the industry as a whole, in India, for example, with its approximately 200 million families, easily tens of billions of dollars are involved.
Humans have evolved to communicate in certain “natural” ways, but visual imagery is perhaps the most developed in terms of the total amount of information per unit time absorbed by the mind. Displays are essential in this processing. If one assumes that one out of four people will own a display in the future, the economic impact is large-on the order of $100 billion. Thus the race to produce lightweight, energy-efficient, and visually appealing displays is under way. Perhaps the most well developed is the active thin-film, transistor-driven liquid crystal display. This industry is still evolving, with a few nations attempting to organize national programs to capture the winning technology.
These two examples illustrate some fundamental, technology-based policy issues. If every family will own a silicon chip and a display device, should a country invest in these technologies? To import might cost billions of dollars and yet to invest would require a billion dollars plus the determination to compete in these technologies on an international scale. The World Bank has a unique role in this decision making. It could, for example, provide a technical and financial assessment of the need to view information technology as an infrastructure investment for some countries and not for others. If such technology is viewed as an infrastructure investment, it is often easier for a government to invest large sums of money than if it is viewed otherwise.
A car is a complex composite of diverse materials. Refinements in the choice of materials to make cars lighter (more energy-efficient) and safer will continue. But the biggest change will come from the incorporation of computers and communication systems, thereby heading toward a world in which once a destination is given to the car's computer, the car's computer/communication system not only will locate the quickest, safest, most economical route, but also will take the driver there automatically. Today's driver will have the choice, in a few decades, to be a passive passenger. But reaching this inevitable goal will require the development of technology and infrastructure.
Do nations choose technologies based on their belief that these technologies are critical to their future? According to the U.S. National Critical Technologies Report,² the answer to this question is affirmative. The first column of Table 1, which lists the nine technologies considered critical by the United States, is followed by columns listing the technologies being targeted by Japan, the European Community, France, and Germany-some of the principal trading partners of the United States. Clearly, these countries also regard the same set or subset of these technologies as critical for their futures.
TABLE 1 Announced Foreign Targets for Critical Technologies
NOTE: Some member nations of the European Community (EC) have announced different targets than the EC collectively.
SOURCE: U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy,U.S. National Critical Technologies Report (Washington, D.C.: OSTP, 1993).
This then leads to a second question: How widespread is the knowledge of these critical technologies? There are many ways to demonstrate that the set of critical technologies-whether they are identified by the names in Table I or whether they are one level higher or lower in technology hierarchy-are widely known. For example, Table 2, which shows by country the R&D investment in the United States, and Table 3, which reveals the patent activity by country in the nine critical technologies, suggest that the trading partners not only actively search for knowledge in the United States, but also participate in generating it. Intellectual property protection is highly emphasized in a competitive environment in which knowledge is pervasive, providing for both the defensive and active protection of technology. It also can be a key earner of money for technologies of the kind described above. In short, nations choose critical technologies to emphasize and organize around from a set of technologies that are widely known.
Given that knowledge about critical technologies is widespread and that within a given critical technology its needs are widely identified, what do different nation-states need to do to optimize the flow of knowledge from R&D to the manufacturing floor? When knowledge is widely and easily available, as it is increasingly because of growing worldwide R&D spending and communications, the extent to which an organization needs to undertake R&D is affected. The ratio of R&D to the search for and acquisition of technology (S&A)-an essential activity in a competitive environment-has a characteristic dependence on time for a given industry and can be used to group the progress of different countries in different industries. Thus some countries or organizations need to increase their R&D, while others need to increase their S&A. This is perhaps best illustrated by a schematic representation of the ratio of R&D to S&A as a function of time for the United States, Japan, and India and China (Figure 1). After World War II, the United States dominated industrial R&D in such areas as automobiles, electrical machinery, and materials (steel). But as knowledge about the technology base of these industries spread to the rest of the world, the ratio of R&D to S&A (R/S) declined in the United States, and U.S.-based industry increasingly sought technical know-how from outside its own R&D organizations. In Figure 1, the automobile, electrical machinery, and materials industries are at the lower plateau of R/S; the pharmaceutical and environmental industries are at the top plateau; and the computer/communication industry is rapidly moving from the higher to the lower plateau. This curve is characteristic of all technology-based industries. If it is accepted that such a trend exists, then the management of R&D depends on the nature and evolutionary state of a particular industry and country.³
TABLE 2 Research and Development Investment in the United States by Selected Countries
NOTE: - = receives heavy emphasis relative to emphasis by other countries; O = receives some emphasis relative to emphasis by other countries; blank = receives little emphasis.
TABLE 3 Patent Activity by Country in Technologies Defined as Critical
NOTE: - = higher than average level of patenting activity in this sector; O = average level of patenting activity in this sector; blank = below average patenting activity in this sector.
SOURCE: U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, US. National Critical Technologies Report (Washington, D.C.: OSTP, 1993).
In contrast to the United States, Japan had an almost nonexistent industrial R&D base after World War II (Figure 1). Japanese industry therefore searched for that knowledge. Their ratio of R/S, largely stemming from a large S, was low in this time frame. As their industries reached competitive levels, the R/S ratio increased by raising R until a steady R/S ratio was reached.
Countries such as India and China are evolving differently. Although there is a large cultural bias toward research, there is almost no significant industrial R&D that attempts to seek this knowledge and turn it into competitive products. The search and acquisition in these countries are not for knowledge but rather for systems that can be transplanted onshore. This process, while profitable onshore, rarely leads to competitive products on a worldwide basis. The R/S curve for China or India is therefore shown as ramping up later in time compared to, for example, Japan. The extent of this “lateness” is determined by the ability and determination of Chinese or Indian industry to be competitive in selected technologies and, of course, by government policies on the need for such competitiveness.
In summary, while materials are necessary for development, they must be viewed as part of a national technology strategy, and care must be given to ensuring that the world environment and the ability of local institutions to sustain, develop, and utilize the know-how are understood.
1. National Research Council, Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s: Maintaining Competitiveness in the Age of Materials (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989).
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