The View from the Top

To commemorate our 40th anniversary, we asked 40 of technology’s masterminds to talk about the last four decades and to tell us what’s coming next

4 min read
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IEEE Spectrum

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“Take away the semiconductor, and all of electronics—all of it!—collapses, along with all of the world’s economies.” That’s how Nick Holonyak Jr., University of Illinois professor, IEEE Medal of Honor winner, and inventor of the red light-emitting diode, views the incalculable contribution that the integrated circuit has made to society over the last four decades.

He’s far from alone in his thinking. For IEEE Spectrum’s 40th anniversary, we asked Holonyak and 39 other leading thinkers from the science and engineering world to gaze out over the technology landscape and tell us what they see. We asked them three questions: What has been the most important technology of the last 40 years? What technology has evolved in a way that surprised you? And what technology will have the biggest impact in the coming decade? Then we invited them to hold forth about the various chapters of technological history that they themselves had witnessed and helped shape.

Nearly all the answers to our first question boiled down to just three things: the integrated circuit, the Internet, and the computer. (Some people covered their bases by naming two of these or even all three.)

And technological surprises? Many of our experts expressed amazement not so much about specific technologies but at the pace of change—whether the breakneck speed of cellphone adoption or the snail-like crawl of educational technology. Moore’s Law, which is about to celebrate its own 40th year, was credited for being an engine as well as a predictor of change, catalyzing astonishing progress in computing power and transmission speed. “I picture Moore’s Law as the drummer on a slave ship, and all of us are the rowers,” says Frank H. Levinson, chairman and CTO of Finisar Corp. “If a few stop rowing, our oars crash into others’. If we all row together, magic happens.”

In the coming decade, our tech leaders foresee daily life being saturated with information technology. Mobile services, to take one example, will know who you are, where you are, and what you need at any given moment—reading e-mail to you while you’re driving in the car, say, or scrolling text messages while you’re watching TV. It’s a future that will depend on wireless communication and computation, distributed sensing, and embedded systems—what the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s William A. Wulf calls “smart, intercommunicating everything.”

Look to biology, we were repeatedly told. Inventor Raymond C. Kurzweil envisions blood-cell-size robots, which would provide “radical life extension...reversing atherosclerosis, getting rid of damaged cells, reversing the aging process, and repairing DNA errors.” Others mentioned engineered medicines, genetically modified plants and animals, tissue engineering, brain research—all reflecting biology’s convergence with traditional engineering disciplines. While venture capitalist (and electrical engineer) David E. Liddle maintained that EEs “rule the world,” he also noted that "we’re beginning to hear the footsteps of biochemists catching up to us.”

In the end, though, our visionaries readily admitted their fallibility when it comes to predicting technology’s wayward course. Just as a forecast from 1964 might have failed to foresee the explosion of the Internet or the longevity of Moore’s Law, this one will no doubt entirely miss some major future landmarks and overstate the criticality or inevitability of others. It’s certainly safer to take the attitude of Jack St. Clair Kilby, another IEEE Medal of Honor winner, whose co-invention of the integrated circuit sparked the current revolution. “The way that all of the electronics fields have continued to grow surprises me,” Kilby noted modestly. “I don’t think anyone can predict the future.”

On the other hand, it’s sure fun to try.

Top 40 Thinkers

Download the complete transcripts of these interviews (PDF, 1.4 mb)

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