The CHIPS are on the table -- but semis are only part of the story

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Co-authored with Stephen A. Schwarzman

First published by The Hill

The “CHIPS and Science Act” President Biden signed into law last week was widely hailed as a refreshing bipartisan triumph, but the measure’s impact can be even broader than many recognize. 

Washington rightly celebrated the benefits of the “CHIPS” side of the new law, which includes funds that can be invested in semiconductor technology right away — a victory for U.S. national security and competitiveness. However, the “Science” part of the bill also deserves our applause: It authorizes funding that can provide a powerful boost for technological innovation that could transform every industry, business and sector. 

We urge Congress to capitalize on this bipartisan momentum and appropriate the funds that the bill authorizes. Our future competitiveness, prosperity and security all rely on technological leadership. To sustain its strength in the long term, the U.S. needs to invent and manufacture the next new technologies.

The good news is that a range of future breakthroughs — and the new start-ups, new industries and new growth they can inspire — will likely emerge from a suite of rapidly evolving technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, 6G communications, energy, biomedicine and more. By investigating the science behind these and other novel technologies through what’s known as “use-inspired basic research” — research at the very frontiers of science yet targeted at overcoming specific technical obstacles that stand in the way of new innovations — we can increase the odds that such breakthroughs will spring from US labs.

In fact, we owe the semiconductor itself to exactly this kind of research. Scientists at Bell Labs set out in the 1940s to push the limits of physics, in hopes of replacing the dominant electronics technology at the time — the bulky, breakable vacuum tube. They wound up inventing the semiconductor transistor, precursor to everything that’s part of the “digital economy” today, including the phone you may be reading this on and the car you drove to work this morning.

Researchers have only started to unlock the full potential of today’s emerging technologies, but initial discoveries hold great promise. Examples could include artificial intelligence that can “learn” without enormous datasets, which could address privacy concerns and accelerate solutions from pinpointing cancer treatments to match each patient’s biology to precisely predicting local threats from climate change. Or quantum computers that can rapidly “invent” novel compounds for potential new drugs. Or inexpensive grid-scale batteries that don’t depend on rare materials from other nations. Or the life-changing ability to regenerate tissues damaged by injury, disease or aging.

And just as the semiconductor accelerated America’s postwar economic growth and secured our leadership on the global stage, these new technologies can do the same in the coming decades. PWC estimates that AI alone will contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy.

However, the workforce needed to capture this opportunity does not exist today. Even technology companies struggle to find qualified candidates. Seventy-five percent of leaders at these companies say they have a hard time sourcing talent. STEM education — also authorized in the “Science” part of the bill — can help close the skills gap and prepare U.S. workers for jobs these next generation technologies will help create.

By bringing the “CHIPS and Science Act” this far, the White House and Congress have redoubled their commitment to ingenuity in America. Failing to pass it would have amounted to sitting down by the side of the road in the race for tomorrow’s technologies; with this legislation, our leaders have kept America in the running. Amid so much polarization, the law is both an overdue investment in homegrown innovation and a welcome reminder of what’s possible when leaders reach across the aisle.

To win the race, we must back the researchers working to unleash the transformative power of these technologies. Let’s lean into this bipartisan moment to carry the “Science” success over the funding finish line.

Stephen A Schwarzman is chairman, CEO & co-founder of Blackstone. L. Rafael Reif is President of MIT.