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Technology Trends 2004

Biomolecular engineering is hot, the tech sector is turning around, and the United States will continue to dominate high-tech R and D in the coming decade. So say the IEEE Fellows in the second annual 2004 IEEE Technology Leaders Survey

12 min read

Some of the world's leading technological minds find much to like about the current course of high-tech R and D and the overall health of the technology sector. In IEEE Spectrum's second annual technology opinion survey, the IEEE Fellows--an elite group of men and women representing the cream of their professions--expect both job prospects and technology investment to pick up in the coming year [see chart, " Survey Says..."]. A decade from now, they expect things to look even better. Optimism reigns despite upheavals in the engineering workforce created by job migration and automation, which the Fellows believe on balance will have a positive effect on the world economy. As for which field and which part of the world will dominate in 10 years' time, the Fellows are unequivocal: biomolecular engineering, they said, will have a far greater impact on society than nanotechnology, megacomputing, or robotics, and the United States will remain the world's technology R and D leader.

The Fellows rendered their opinions in an 18-question survey, conducted over the Web in October and November [see sidebar, "How This Survey Was Conducted"]. The survey explored the Fellows' views on the Big Picture: their impressions about the health of their industry and region, which fields and parts of the globe they expect to take off and expand, and what effect labor trends will have on the global economy. The Fellows also weighed in on technology strategy and investment: how they evaluate new ideas and projects, whether they favor established companies or start-ups as sources of innovation, and which high-tech giants seem most in danger of being toppled. Fellows were also given the chance to qualify or amplify their views, or simply to hold forth.

By now, it's old news that the tech sector and the high-tech workforce in certain parts of the world, particularly the United States but also Western Europe and Japan, have taken a beating in the last several years. U.S. unemployment among EEs stood at 6.7 percent during the third quarter of 2003, topping the national jobless rate. Lately, though, many economists and business leaders feel the tech downturn is finally swinging upward, and the IEEE Fellows largely agree: 51 percent felt that job prospects in their industry would improve in the coming year, and 60 percent expected to see a stronger job market in 10 years' time [see figure, " Will Job Prospects in Your Industry..."]. Over half of the Fellows also expected investment in new technology to pick up in their countries in 2004.

Not surprisingly, opinions differed considerably by field: those working in computers were particularly confident about both the near and far term: 57 percent felt the job market would improve this year, 67 percent expected that improvement to continue in 2014, and 63 percent thought their country would see greater tech investment. Those in telecommunications were less sanguine about the near term, but almost two-thirds thought job prospects would improve by 2014. Among those in semiconductors, 57 percent foresaw improvement in 2004, but only 48 percent expected to see a healthy employment picture in 2014.

A look at the write-in responses revealed other qualifiers. Many Fellows anticipate incremental rather than radical improvement--gone are the wild spending and hiring sprees of the late 1990s. Others predicted that the strongest job growth would be in the developing world, particularly India and China, where labor is cheaper. Some Fellows predicted a growing demand for highly skilled professionals in selected fields, mentioning wireless and optical communications, information theory, education, and security. And, of course, the fate of engineers will remain tied to that of the society at large: "Because of the linkage of almost all career opportunities to the politics of the world economy, more than ever, how the future plays out depends upon political decisions," wrote Allen Q. Howard Jr., a physicist at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

One of the big surprises is where the Fellows came down on the question of the increasing globalization and automation of labor. The last few years have seen major upheavals in the engineering profession, as jobs in manufacturing, software development, and even R and D have begun to shift from the industrialized world to China, India, and other countries. Meanwhile, advances in automation are radically altering the way that engineers do their jobs, leading some social critics to remark on the "de-skilling" of the professional classes.

In stark contrast to many of their colleagues in engineering, computer science, and information technology, most of the Fellows consider these transformations in the labor force to be beneficial [see figure, " How Will These Labor Trends..."]. Seven in ten of the respondents thought automation would have a positive effect on the world economy, while two-thirds thought job migration would be a net positive. That said, many acknowledged that the change would be enormous and painful for the developed world. "In the rapidly evolving information age, transitions will occur that rival the transition from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial-based one," wrote David L. Hall, associate dean for research and graduate programs in Pennsylvania State University's School of Information Sciences and Technology, in University Park.

Other Fellows shared the angst that many engineers and other technology professionals in the United States and Europe now feel over the loss of jobs. "If IEEE-USA and the U.S. Congress don't act immediately to provide the same protections for engineering that the medical and legal professions have, our profession is going to die," warned W. Ross Stone, an engineering consultant based in La Jolla, Calif. And Richard V. Snyder, president of RS Microwave Company Inc., in Butler, N.J., worried about the erosion of standards that may accompany globalization: "While economics-driven job transfer sounds very Darwinian, in fact it is Draconian. It will result in poorer quality products and lowered standards, and ignores that complex parts and processes will require the decisions of well-educated (and well-paid) humans for at least the next 50 years or so."

How Healthy is your Tech Sector? 53% expect technology investment to pick up in their country in 2004, although Fellows based in Asia are far more optimistic than their U.S. and European peers.

Several respondents observed that job migration will force developed countries to put more emphasis on educating and maintaining a skilled workforce. Citing a recent National Science Foundation study on the downturn in the number of U.S. citizens earning science and engineering doctorates, James D. Foley, a professor and associate dean in the college of computing at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, observed, "While we are depending more and more on foreign-born Ph.D.s to stay in the U.S. to help fuel our innovation engine, inducements for them to return to their home countries are increasing. For instance, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and IBM all have labs in China and/or India now."

Ultimately, though, many Fellows thought the end result in global terms--increased economic activity, more democratic governments, and improved standards of living--would offset any social disruption. "Transitions are always wrenching," remarked Harry ("Nick") Tredennick, c0-editor of the Gilder Technology Report, in Great Barrington, Mass. "We focus on what is being lost (the jobs that migrate) and not on what is being gained. The world economy isn't zero-sum. Gains in productivity help all, and they are most visible in emerging nations. Isolation and protectionism historically fail."

Which discipline and which country will rule the technology landscape in 10 years' time? Here, the Fellows showed little doubt: 72 percent are betting that biomolecular engineering will have the biggest social impact [see figure, " Which Field Will Have..."], while 60 percent said the United States would remain the center of technology R and D in 2014.

The possibilities posed by biology's intersection with the traditional engineering world caused considerable enthusiasm. "Potential breakthroughs in medicine could dominate everything," wrote Michael C. Driver, director of information services at the Materials Research Society in Warrendale, Pa. "Bioengineering will be in the 21st century what electronic engineering was in the 20th century," wrote another Fellow. And Dimitris Anastassiou, director of Columbia University's genomic information systems laboratory in New York City, predicted that "electrical engineering systems-based approaches will play a major role in 'post-genomic' computational biology, in which the intracellular processes are seen as components of an information/computational system."

A good share of the respondents, 58 percent, also felt nanotechnology would prove important, though several noted that its impact was probably still 20 years away. Megacomputing and robotics, meanwhile, came in a distant third and fourth. Quite a few respondents predicted that the synergies created by the integration of all these technologies would have more impact than any one alone. "I see great opportunities at the intersection of different and more established disciplines, such as nanoelectronics and molecular biology, telecommunication and sensor technology, and more generally, system engineering and the related enabling technologies," wrote Giorgio Baccarani, a professor of digital electronics at the University of Bologna in Italy.

Other Fellows had other ideas about high-impact technology. "Nanotechnology and biowhatever are the latest fads. Some of them may indeed be important, but some (like dot.com) will come and then go. Of constant importance will be things like energy, transportation, and communications," argued James Kirtley, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. His was one of a chorus of voices drilling home the importance of energy--especially from renewable and alternative sources--after a summer of blackouts in the United States, the UK, Italy, and Scandinavia. "Cheap and clean energy generation is the most pressing problem in our EE world," declared David B. Lomet, who manages the database group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash. " 'It's energy, stupid,' " wrote Ion Boldea, a professor of electrical engineering at the University Politehnica, in Timisoara, Romania. "Yes, computers, information, biotech are all very tempting and indispensable for the postmodern society, but it is energy that drives the prosperity." And David J. Thomson, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Canada, warned, "We are running out of time on the global warming monster that we are still busily feeding."

Sensor technology and wireless and pervasive networking were also cited by a number of respondents. Wrote John Baillieul, professor and chairman of the aerospace and mechanical engineering department at Boston University: "The Internet and wireless communications networks are merely feeble indications of what is to come in a future world where devices of all kinds everywhere are interconnected and communicate with each other in real time." Pierre Chevillat, manager of wireless communication systems at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, in Switzerland, concurred: "The number of sensors and actuators connected to the Internet in just a few years will outnumber PCs, PDAs, and mobile phones, and the majority of computer transactions will be due to sensors and actuators."

So who will lead the world in technological R and D in 2014? Fully 60 percent of the Fellows from all parts of the globe felt that the United States would retain its lead, crediting the country's culture and legal system, which they said encourage risk-taking and innovation, as well as an overall infrastructure that is hospitable to research and development, including excellent universities, national laboratories, private companies, and government subsidies. China came in a distant second, with 18 percent, and the European Union garnered only 6 percent.

Which Region will Rule Tech in 10 Years? 60% think the U.S. will remain the world's R and D leader in 2014, compared to only 18% who said China and 6% Europe. But many felt no single place would lead: R and D will increasingly go global.

But, as always, qualifiers abounded. "The proviso is that we [in the United States] stay an 'open society' with free communication and travel, and do not shut ourselves off from the rest of the world because of a continual fear of 'terrorism' or whatever 'ism' happens to come by," warned Robert L. Kosut, vice president of the systems and control division at SC Solutions Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Martin E. Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University in California, echoed that sentiment: the United States would retain its lead, he said, "provided the U.S. continues to attract the best and brightest foreign nationals and make them welcome."

Many felt the United States wouldn't remain preeminent in the long run, however. Some saw China poised to eclipse the United States, perhaps not by 2014 but in 15 or 20 years' time. One Fellow pointed out that 57 percent of China's college students major in science and engineering, compared to less than 20 percent of U.S. citizens in college.

A number of Fellows, though, foresaw a time when no single country or region would dominate R and D. "If we succeed at being global, there will be multiple centers of R and D. Even today, the center may be in the United States, but it is made up of multiple cultures," said Gene A. Frantz, business development manager of digital signal processing for Texas Instruments Inc., in Dallas. As another respondent put it, look to "a global village in technology."

When it comes to decisions about technology investment, development, and strategy, the Fellows are particularly well placed: they're the inventors of ideas, the founders and managers of companies, and the educators and mentors of young engineers. Not surprisingly, then, they have some pretty strong, and diverse, ideas about why companies succeed and fail, and where the stumbling blocks lie on the road to innovation. Do big companies have an edge over little companies in the marketplace, or vice versa? Though 35 percent of respondents felt that established companies lose out to start-ups in developing new technology, those who identified themselves as entrepreneurs were far more likely to believe this to be the case than those who aren't entrepreneurial [see figure, " Do Established Companies Lose Out..."].

The prime factor that hamstrings large companies is lack of agility, these Fellows said. They also felt that big-business culture is more bureaucratic, less innovative, and more risk averse than that of a hungry start-up. "Innovation is inversely proportional to the size of the company," declared Texas Instruments' Gene Frantz.

Fellows who said established companies had an edge over start-ups, meanwhile, credited the big firms' better access to markets and deeper pockets as important factors. "Large companies can allow small companies to do the R and D and be the pioneers, then move in and capture share through their broader market reach or through acquisition," one Fellow pointed out, naming Cisco Systems as an example.

A number of Fellows observed that as a technology evolves, the company needs to change, too, and that different technologies flourish in different business environments. While their agility might enable small companies to outperform big ones in certain areas, some Fellows pointed out that fields like medical imaging functions and semiconductor processes require enormous capital investment. "Much then depends on the time to ramp up of the market and the financial perseverance of these small companies and their investors," observed Theo Claasen, executive vice president of technology and strategy at Philips Semiconductors, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

And which of the big tech companies are in greatest danger of being overtaken by rivals? Lucent Technologies and Sun Microsystems were the top two contenders--with 71 percent and 68 percent of the Fellows, respectively, citing them as vulnerable--with Microsoft running a distant third. Again, responses reflected where people work. Telecom and semiconductor types were more likely to dish Lucent, while those in computers were more apt to take aim at Sun.

Interestingly, a hefty percentage of the Microsoft-bashers were power engineers. Guy St. Jean, CEO of Quantech R and D Inc. in Montreal, wrote, "Microsoft is sticking to a proprietary vision of the world that is passé." But quite a few Fellows noted that every company needs to worry about the competition, and take Andy Grove's maxim to heart: "Only the paranoid survive."

When it comes to evaluating the potential value of a new technology, only one thing really mattered to the Fellows: the opinion of experts in the field, whether garnered firsthand or from the technical literature [see figure, " What Factors Influence..."]. Somewhat less important sources of information were conferences and the patent literature, and way down on the list were the business press, pending lawsuits, and stock market trends. Many Fellows cited other criteria, including their gut feelings, the smarts and credentials of the technology's originators, and whether a market exists for the resulting product.

Overestimating demand was an oft-cited pitfall, as when hype about the rate of Internet growth fueled the fiber-optic bubble. "This points to the need to understand the fundamentals of the size of the market for a given product or technology before setting in motion a large investment cycle," cautioned Jan Conradi, who is retired from Corning Inc., in Corning, N.Y.

As for obstacles that might prevent a new technology from getting to market, the Fellows said securing funding and gaining public acceptance were the biggest challenges. By contrast, they felt that technical hurdles, like developing prototypes and scaling up a prototype to production levels, were easier to overcome.

Respondents also named the patent system and intellectual property issues as hindrances. Dennis C. Erickson, senior electronics engineer at Quantum Controls Inc., in Beaverton, Ore., cited "the political compromises that must be made to satisfy legacy regulations, laws, and social concerns." Of course, different markets, technologies, and products present different challenges. "Products that change social behavior are much more difficult to get accepted than those that enhance or upgrade existing behaviors," noted Randal E. Bryant, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. What's essential? That the product serve a real need and improve on the technology it's replacing. Not, as another Fellow said, "A picturephone, again and again!"

Ultimately, observed Alberto Leon-Garcia, a professor at the University of Toronto, "you don't take technologies to market, you take products to market. A technology reaches the marketplace if it supports a product that provides utility and value."

Tech Titans in Trouble: More than two-thirds of Fellows said Lucent and Sun Microsystems are most likely to be surpassed by rivals, with Microsoft a distant third

As they gazed into the future, the Fellows saw many things to temper their enthusiasm and optimism about technology's potential. As noted earlier, many felt energy consumption and attendant environmental problems to be the most pressing issue. "Our standard of living is directly related to how well we harness energy and use it to replace human labor," observed Philip Hopkinson, president and CEO of Hvolt Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. "Perhaps no movement will be so important to our future than to move toward energy independence, with a balanced policy of sourcing, infrastructure, and energy efficiency."

"The challenge which we still broadly face is how to spread the use of beneficial technology to a large part of the world's population," wrote Richard De La Rue, a professor of optoelectronics at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and one of many who cited the social and moral implications of technology. "We need to think much more about how technologies developed by us are used and abused," wrote Wojciech P. Maly, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "Our designs should include 'social consequences' as performance specs."

The need for more and better engineering education was another concern. Are engineers and educators doing enough to generate interest in science and engineering at the high school level? Will the supply of engineers continue to meet demand in the future? Will engineering graduates be able to handle the increased commingling of technology disciplines?

"We'll need a new breed of engineers, schooled in fundamentals, not specialties," argued Gerard ("Gus") Gaynor, a technology management consultant based in Minneapolis, Minn. "I'm speaking of generalists who have enough familiarity with other disciplines to be sensitive to their needs, to be able to rationalize engineering compromises when necessary, and who will continue to learn."

Still other Fellows decried the focus on profits and legal issues at the expense of long-term basic research. "There will be no new technologies without support for basic research and a change in attitude away from risk-averse policies and in favor of speculative but high-potential fundamental research," wrote Stephen E. Levinson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana. "Industry has completely abdicated its responsibility to sponsor fundamental research."

How good is the Fellows' crystal ball? Here, too, they had an opinion. Larry DeShazer, director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at Irvine Valley College in California, observed, "Scientists and engineers are terrible predictors of future technological achievements. A new--and surprising--development in the near future could completely negate current projections about the technical future."

Or as another Fellow put it: "The unexpected innovation often becomes most important."

A PowerPoint file summarizing the results of the 2004 IEEE Fellows Tech Survey can be downloaded at /spectrum/jan04/departments/2004IEEEFellSurv.ppt.

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