Tech innovators see end of silicon era, rise of electric vehicles

Masato Nakamura with Panasonic and Chris Warden with the Washington Corp., discuss the future of technology and how it will transform business during a roundtable discussion at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

This is the third of three stories on how information technology and innovation are transforming industries and people’s lives. The topics were discussed during a roundtable reception at the University of Montana through Accelerate Montana with the leaders of IBM, Panasonic and the Washington Corp.

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When a group of technology experts were asked to speculate on the future of their industries last week at the University of Montana, their answers were broad and varied, from the end of the silicon age to the dominance of the electric vehicle.

The question was posed by Mansfield senior research fellow Alex Philp during a roundtable discussion hosted by Accelerate Montana. The evening covered everything from artificial intelligence to big data analytics and cyber security.

“Not to be a bummer here, but I’m most excited about the end of the silicon era,” said Nick Donofrio, former executive vice president of innovation and technology at IBM. “It’s going to happen in our lifetime.”

Over the course of his 44-year career with IBM, Donofrio saw the end of vacuum tubes and single transistors. Silicon was the next big thing, though the way it’s currently understood may be coming to an end.

“It comes to an end at one nanometer up – like two electrons,” he said. “You need two electrons to make a particular system. That’s going to be absolutely interesting, intriguing and mind-blowing, but energizing too. It could give rise to photons. It could give rise to magnetics.”

According to Popular Science, IBM allocated $3 billion over five years starting in 2014 for chip research. That year, IBM made transistors just 22 nanometers wide, though it planned to shrink them to 14 nanometers in 2015.

Donofrio agreed with leading researchers that future computers could move toward synaptic computing using circuitry based on structures found in the brain, or nonophotonocis that rely on pulses of light rather than electric signals.

Donofrio believes the technology will arrive in 15 or 20 years, adding there’s more than one way to move energy from point to point.

“One nanometer is the barrier,” he said. “But those barriers were always the photo-lithographic barriers. You could always make the physics work if you could print the image. When you get to one nanometer, there’s no image. There’s nothing there.”

While IBM tackles the future of computing, Panasonic is bolstering its research into electric vehicles and solar technology.

Masato Nakamura, the director of international corporate affairs with Panasonic, said the company has partnered with both Tesla in the U.S. and the Chinese government to develop electric vehicles.

Nick Donofrio, the former IBM executive vice president of innovation and technology, believes the silicon era as we know it will come to an end in 20 years. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We continue this investment because the demand continues to increase,” said Nakamura. “We also have a business partner with electric vehicles in China. Because of the air pollution, the Chinese government has started taking strong initiatives to push electric vehicles more, first with public buses.”

Nakamura said the Chinese government plans to replace 20,000 buses with electric buses this year. Along with solar technology, he said the Chinese government has made a commitment to green technology, despite the apparent direction of the new Trump administration in the U.S.

“I’m expecting the U.S. industrial coalition to push your government,” Nakamura said.

Chris Warden, vice president of technology at the Washington Corp., said automated monitoring and sensor technology could transform his company.

“You can use that data to improve efficiency,” he said. “Those very simple things we’re experiencing in our homes are coming into business. They’re creating new opportunities to differentiate, particularly in traditional businesses.”


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