- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Is the United States unwittingly losing its technological dominance? It sure looks like it.

The design of airliners used to be an American private party. We had Lockheed, Boeing, and McDonnell-Douglass, which dominated the industry. It was important as a source of foreign exchange and because it depended on American technological dominance. Now we are down to Boeing. Airbus Industries is the leader, and there is Embraer in Brazil.

I was discussing this with an economist friend who also is a helicopter pilot. “Fred,” he hollered. “We used to dominate helos, and now Eurocopter is eating our lunch.” He says poor management has led to the decline in U.S. dominance over helicopters as well as fixed-wing craft.

A recent New York Times story said, “The United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation.” This observation can be found on technology sites all over the Internet.

Study after study has documented the high proportion of foreign science students, usually Asian, in our graduate schools. Now more of them are going home after graduation, and finding work.

Today there is much furor over “outsourcing,” as American companies hire Asians in Asia to do programming. A couple of years back, I predicted that Asia would move up the technology chain. The Indians would start by doing maintenance programming, then progress to harder things, start their own companies, and compete with American firms. The same would happen in designing microcircuitry.

A lot of the resulting e-mail said, “Fred, they can do simple stuff, but they can’t compete at the high end. What they’re doing is the equivalent of stitching running shoes together.”

At the same time, I was seeing that U.S. high-tech companies were establishing research centers in Asia.

Now, at the Register, a British computer industry Web site, I find this headline: “New Xeon unearthed as Intel’s first all-India chip.” The Xeon is a central processing unit — a very high-end chip. It isn’t running shoes.

Then, on the X-bit Labs site, I find this: “The fact that Intel may release a processor for mission-critical enterprise servers designed from the ground up in India confirms there are very high-skilled engineers in the country that are able to compete with those in the USA, Israel and some other places in the world.”

Very little is known about the chip, and phrases such as “designed from the ground up” need to be taken with several grains of salt. My point is that microprocessors are now being designed in India.

Why can Indians (and others) advance in a hurry? There are many reasons: American grad schools, for example. Asians are hungrier than we are.

Another reason: Programming is more brain intensive than information intensive. A medical doctor needs to be reasonably bright and learn huge amounts. A high-end programmer needs to be very bright but does not have to memorize nearly as much. Entry into computing is easier. A guy I know is a network wizard. He’s 20, and taught himself.

This makes software a natural for countries with a lot of brains but few resources. Also, given that U.S. schools have declined academically and American children tend to go into law and management, you have what looks like a recipe for losing out.

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