Rediscovering fundamental innovation

Eugene Fitzgerald explores the innovation dynamics that produce new technological and economic paradigms.

Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors per chip will roughly double every two years, has held up past its expiration date, chugging along like a Martian rover that refuses to die. Yet, the long predicted end of Gordon Moore’s calculation, which has led to 20 to 30 percent growth for microprocessor-related businesses for almost 40 years, is finally drawing near.

But aren’t there other Moore’s Law-like phenomena just waiting to be found, ready to stoke the economy once again? Perhaps, but one cannot count on a regenerative engine like Moore’s Law just popping out of thin air, says Eugene A. Fitzgerald, the Merton C. Flemings-SMA Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.

“We were fortunate in the U.S. to have a fundamental innovation paradigm that gave us incredible economic growth for decades throughout all our institutions,” Fitzgerald says. “Now, with Moore’s Law coming to an end, we’re seeing slower growth. It’s stressful, but also exciting, as we look for a new path.”

Unfortunately, our new search coincides with a period in which U.S. corporate, academic, and government research and development investments are faltering, says Fitzgerald. “With the fading away of corporate labs like Bell Labs, the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. has changed,” says Fitzgerald. “The lack of forward corporate investments has hurt innovation productivity.”

While Fitzgerald is especially concerned with the decline of America’s once-preeminent R&D leadership, he notes that it’s really a global problem. “There’s still no other country that’s better at it,” he says.