Japan's electronics industry has attained a significant research and development lead over the United States in what many scientists believe will be the next generation of high speed electronics technology, according to a specially commissioned Commerce Department study.
Japan's lead is emerging in new non-silicon electronics that can lead to computers, telecommunications switches and signal processing chips capable of processing data dozens of times faster than current technologies. Currently, most computer circuitry uses silicon as its basic medium. While silicon is less expensive, it has technical limitations that these non-silicon media can surpass.
The recently released Commerce Department study -- Japanese Technology Evaluation Program Report on Opto- & Microelectronics -- maintains that Japan has been "aggressive in acquiring, improving and implementing these technologies, whose conceptual aspects were developed in the U.S."
Moreover, the report adds, "in optoelectronics in particular, the Japanese have made major, original contributions and, while their adaptive ingenuity can be expected to continue to produce market-oriented products, their original creative contributions to this field are expected to increase steadily in the future."
According to Harry H. Wieder, a University of California electrical engineering professor who co-chaired the Commerce Department's JTECH research panel, this assessment is one of the first to conclude that Japan's electronics industry has research and development capabilities equal to, or slightly better than, their U.S. counterparts.
Traditionally, the United States is seen as superior in basic research and development, while the Japanese are regarded as superior when it comes to commercializing new technologies.
"It's a gloomy assessment," said Wieder.
The report, compiled by leading scientists and engineers, addresses several key areas of state-of-the-art electronics research -- particularly in the realm of ultra-high-speed data communications, sensor technology and low-energy lasers -- that have a wide variety of potential applications.
Most notably, optoelectronic devices are considered vital for future generations of high-speed supercomputers. Optoelectronic devices can carry data as impulses of light, rather than electrons coursing down a wire, and thus transmit more information at speeds dozens of times faster and farther than silicon technologies.
Currently, U.S. companies such as Cray Research are leaders in the supercomputer industry -- although several Japanese companies such as NEC Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. are now moving into that market.
The ability of integrated circuits to "see" patterns and process them at very high speeds provides important military options for sophisticated "smart" weapons systems.
These technologies, which serve as a link between silicon chips and fiber optic cable that carry data, also are expected to be an integral part of advanced telecommunications-switching equipment capable of handling thousands of lines of voice, data and video transmissions.
The market for such optoelectronic devices should exceed $4 billion a year within 10 years, according to Eugene Gordon, chairman of Lytel Inc., a New Jersey-based optoelectronics company.
Gordon, a former Bell Labs researcher, criticized the JTECH report, saying that "most of the people on the committee were more on the research side than the technology side . . . . Research is only one facet of the technology."
"There is a lot of entrepreneurial activity in optoelectronics and microelectronics in smaller companies that this report didn't consider," said Gordon, adding that the region of New Jersey where his company is located has been nicknamed "Gallium Gulch" -- referring to gallium arsenide, a medium for optoelectronic devices.
However, Gordon conceded that Japan's electronics industry already has a commanding lead in the ability to manufacture optoelectronic components -- although he pointed out that the military need for optoelectronics assures that there will be a market for American optoelectronics suppliers because of the national security aspects.