The ability to compute, communicate, and store information is at the heart of the information revolution. Silicon chip technology, fiber-optic communication technology, and magnetic storage technology are currently the key enabling technologies. All three are experiencing exponential growth in capacity and exponential reductions in cost per operation. Research in condensed-matter and materials physics is the foundation on which these technologies are based. Ultimately these growth rates will flatten as physical and/or economic limits are reached. At that point, either information technology will stop growing or—more likely—wholly new technologies will arise from basic research as the new enablers. In storage, for example, various scanning probe techniques have been proposed as follow-ons to hard disk drives, and computer logic gates made of biological entities or even individual molecules are possible. In optical communications, the use of miniaturized silicon technology or microelectromechanical systems to produce tiny arrays of switches will enable new, low-cost optical networks that do not require translation from optical to electronic and back to optical for regeneration.
Whatever the future may hold, clearly it is the role of basic research to provide the innovations to improve today's technologies and to lay the foundations for new technologies. The critical role of basic research in the technologies of our era was highlighted in a recent address by Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board:1
When historians look back at the latter half of the 1990s a decade or two hence, I suspect that they will conclude we are now living through a pivotal period in American economic history. New technologies that evolved from the cumulative innovations of the past half-century have now begun to bring about dramatic changes in the way goods and services are produced and in the way they are distributed to final users. While the process of innovation, of course, is never-ending, the development of the transistor after World War II appears in retrospect to have initiated a special wave of innovative synergies. It brought us the microprocessor, the computer, satellites, and the joining of laser and fiber-optic technologies. By the 1990s, these and a number of lesser but critical innovations had, in turn, fostered an enormous new capacity to capture, analyze, and disseminate information. It is the growing use of information technology throughout the economy that makes the current period unique.
1 Alan Greenspan, “Technology Innovation and Its Economic Impact,” address to the National Technology Forum, St. Louis, Mo., April 7, 2000.