In the past, the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) uptake of U.S. computing technology research designed especially for it and now increasingly adapted from the fast-moving consumer market has resulted in a large U.S. advantage. In the future, the rate of change in the competitive position of the United States in computing technology will increasingly depend in part on other countries’ basic research capabilities and the types of research and development (R&D) policies they pursue, as well as the associated economic climate. Of course, many factors influence the range and type of policy options available in each region. Countries also differ in their levels of development and in their economic institutions, and pursue quite different approaches to innovation policy.
Historically, the United States has relied on market forces and the private sector to convert university research ideas, funded by the federal government, into marketable products. In contrast, the European Union and emerging economies such as China, Korea, and Taiwan rely much more on the government to define the strategic objectives and key parameters. For example, recent Chinese innovation policies have played an increasing role in strengthening its indigenous innovation capabilities. There is also evidence that China is transitioning toward economic outcome-driven science and technology programs focused on technologies of national strategic importance—many of which are advanced computing technologies. In contrast, Taiwan’s innovation policies are focused on moving its IT industries beyond the traditional “global factory” model. Thus, innovation polices emphasize low-cost and fast innovation by strengthening public and private partnerships that leverage domestic and global innovation networks.
Competitive Implications and National Security
In the committee’s view, the United States currently enjoys a technological advantage in many computing technologies. Nonetheless, this technological gap is narrowing as other countries, such as China, make a concerted effort to develop their own indigenous computing design and manufacturing capabilities and as design and fabrication of such technologies, as well as software development, are increasingly distributed globally.
Thus, it is important to take a long-term perspective on our approaches to computing innovation, technology uptake, and defense policy, for the United State’s global competitors certainly are. The principal future national security concerns for the United States related to anticipated computing shifts and limits on single-processor performance come not just from the threat to U.S. technological superiority, but also from changes to the nature and structure of the marketplace for computing and information technology. U.S. challenges include maintaining the integrity of the global supply chain for semiconductors, which is exacerbated by the convergence of civilian and defense technologies, as well as the rise of a new ecosystem of smart devices, based on licensable components and created by semiconductor design firms without fabrication capabilities.
Over time, the increasing presence and establishment of foreign markets that are larger, are potentially more lucrative, and have better long-term growth potential than in the United States and other developed countries could also have significant implications. Any shift in the global commercial center of gravity could lead to a shift in the global R&D center of gravity as international firms are required to locate in these markets if they are to remain competitive and to meet the requirements of government regulations in the target markets.
Shifting from policy to technology, the parallel programming challenges in delivering high performance on multicore chips are real and global, with no obvious technical solutions. Barring research breakthroughs, developing applications that exploit on-chip parallelism effectively (or vice versa, by developing approaches to on-chip parallelism that better support application needs) will remain an intellectually challenging task that is dependent on highly skilled software developers. When combined with the need for rapid application development, nimble response to shifting threats, and the ever-present desire for new features, equating competitive advantage in computing solely with single-processor performance (and associated application performance) may not be wise. Going forward, metrics such as system reliability, energy efficiency, security adaptability, and cost will inevitably become more salient. Power consumption is the major constraint on chip performance and device utility. Innovation in software, architecture, hardware, and other computing technologies will continue apace, but the primary axes of innovation are shifting, and organizations such as the U.S. DOD will need to adapt their computing and IT strategies accordingly.