Through a mixture of destiny, default and design, virtually every important industry in the United States is becoming high-tech.
* General Motors Corp., once viewed as a corporate anachronism in an era of change, has moved aggressively to weave new technologies into every aspect of its business. The world's largest automobile company has declared that its newly proposed Saturn car will be a product of the latest computer-aided design and engineering technologies. Building a car increasingly has become a high technology process.
And for the first time in its history, GM has made investments in several small venture companies in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to machine vision as a means to keep abreast of relevant technologies. Pushing to diversify and explore the high-tech market, GM purchased Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems Inc. computer facilities management company in June.
* New technologies, with all the problems and opportunities they represent, have radically reshaped old values and traditions at International Business Machines Corp., the world's largest high technology company.
First, the $46 billion-a-year computer giant designated a special "independent business unit" to guide it into the personal computer market while relying on outside hardware and software vendors to help create the machine.
Later, IBM asked Sytek, a tiny New York company, to help design a communications standard that permits personal computers to be linked together into a data processing network.
In November, IBM made its first corporate acquisition in more than 22 years, to address a new market opportunity as computer and telecommunications technologies converged. IBM's $2.5 billion purchase of Rolm Corp., a manufacturer of office telecommunications switching equipment based in Santa Clara, Calif., gives the computer company yet another entry into the multibillion-dollar office automation market.
* Even agriculture, America's oldest and largest export industry, is being transformed by new technology. Biotechnology and genetic engineering techniques applied by companies ranging from Calgene Inc. to Monsanto Co. to E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. are spawning a new generation of herbicides, insecticides and grains genetically tailored to thrive in even the harshest conditions.
The trend is increasingly clear: Technological and market opportunities are forging new business alliances. Universities are now more aggressive in using their research facilities to create industrial liaisons. Carnegie-Mellon University President Richard Cyert sees the university role as a "mini-MITI" -- a reference to Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry -- to help coordinate and aid regional research and development in key technologies.
Similarly, many multibillion-dollar giants that formerly suffered from the "not invented here" syndrome have sought to acquire or enter into joint ventures with young companies with a good grip on a desirable technology. These relationships are particularly plentiful in the fastest growing arenas -- biotechnology and information technology -- and raise a very important point. In many instances, the young venture company that introduces a technology is only a catalyst in the process of economic growth. Rather than reaping the profits from the technology it has devised, the young company more often than not is merely an agent of change that transfers the technology to companies in a better position to exploit it for the marketplace.
The classic example of this is IBM's personal computer. The world's largest computer company did not invent the personal computer, but it was in a superb position to take the concept, repackage it and turn it into a multibillion-dollar business.
In biotechnology as well, many young genetic engineering companies lack the resources to bring a new pharmaceutical or chemical to market successfully. They are counting on the enormous capital and distribution resources of companies such as Dow Chemical Co. and Du Pont to do it for them.
In order to capture opportunities in an increasingly competitive global market, companies are going where the technologies are -- and they're prepared to acquire them, get licenses to them, enter joint ventures for them or develop them, if that is what it takes.
But even as technology redefines external market opportunities, it is redefining internal corporate practices. The Commerce Department estimates that 52 percent of the capital invested by U.S. companies for their own operations last year were for information and telecommunications technology equipment. The ability to use technology to enhance the value of information is increasingly viewed as a vital component in gaining a strategic edge in the marketplace.
Fortune 500 companies are preparing to buy millions of personal computers and their associated software in hopes of making their white-collar workers more productive.
Internal data networks are being installed so that electronic mail can be sent and teleconferences arranged.
The corporate data processing center is fast becoming a corporate information utility that management can tap to extract data needed to analyze sales or to model future growth. Some companies are going so far as to create "chief information officers" in top management positions.
This pace and pervasiveness of innovation throughout industry has made technology as powerful an economic force as capital, labor and government regulations.
As such, there's been a growing debate to assess the role the U.S. government should play to assure that America remains a leader in the research, development and application of commercial technology.
Some Democrats and academic allies have called for the United States to devise an industrial policy that targets key technologies for government aid and investment, much as MITI does for Japan.
Financier Felix Rohatyn suggests that the United States create a Reconstruction Finance Corp. that acts as sort of an investment banker to identify sunrise and sunset industries.
Conversely, Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Calif.), head of the Republican High Technology Task Force, argues that the focal point of government concern should not be targeting industry but rather the "process of innovation." Zschau and his allies recommend an array of tax credits and intellectual property protections as incentives to the industrial innovation process.
Others maintain that there has to be a high-level government recognition of science and technology and their role in assuring economic growth. MIT economist Lester Thurow and Harvard School of Government Professor Robert Reich have pushed for creation of a Cabinet-level post for science and technology.
White House science adviser George Keyworth, along with the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, have called for the establishment of a Department of Science and Technology to coordinate the federal government's multibillion-dollar expenditure in those areas.
It is important to note, however, that it is not the pervasiveness of technology that has sparked this policy debate, but rather the perception that the U.S. technological base and this country's ability to compete successfully in global markets is eroding.
Specifically, U.S. policy makers and several industry leaders say they fear that the growing economic success of Japan, the Pacific rim countries and West Germany comes at the expense of U.S. industrial growth. Japan, in particular, has enjoyed impressive economic growth and competes with U.S. companies in the vital area of information technology.
In an effort to leapfrog the U.S. lead in computer technology, Japan two years ago launched what it calls a "Fifth Generation Computer" project to create a machine that processes information thousands of times faster than existing computers while being able to emulate human thought processes through a variety of artificial intelligence software techniques.
Partly in response to the Japanese effort and well aware of both the military and commercial applications, the Pentagon Defense Advance Research Projects Agency launched its $600 million "Strategic Computing" project to assure that U.S. companies and universities would research and develop new computer hardware, chips and sophisticated software.
Not wanting to be left out, the countries of Europe have banded together to launch Esprit, the continent's version of Fifth Generation and strategic computing.
Clearly, technology has risen to become a national industrial priority throughout the world. Industrialized countries are more concerned than ever with developing and maintaining a technological infrastructure that links their universities, investment communities and businesses.
This is in marked contrast to the industrial behavior as recently as a decade ago, when America's overall superiority in technology was unquestioned.
Capital formation is vital to economic growth. Global marketing expertise is vital as well, but the current growing sentiment is that technological momentum is the force that will determine whether America brightens or fades as an economic power.