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An `Information Superhighway'?

An `Information Superhighway'?

Could it be? Is the laissez-faire gang at the White House about to adopt an initiative that comes dangerously close to industrial policy?

The answer is yes. The Bush Administration, worried that the U. S. may lose its lead in computer technology to Japan, has signed on to an idea first promoted by Senator Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) to develop a high-speed national computer network and a new generation of swift supercomputers.

The scheme is the heart of the Administration's 1992 science and technology budget. Set for release on Feb. 4, the budget lays out a multibillion-dollar, five-year plan with fiscal 1992 funding roughly $150 million above current levels for networks and advanced computing.

The goal: to build faster and more sophisticated hardware and software and link it all via what Gore calls an "information superhighway." Far-flung researchers could hookup with libraries, data bases, and vastly improved supercomputers.

If it all works, scientists would be able to use the new machines and speedier networks to run increasingly elaborate computer models of everything from the beginning of the universe to the Earth's climate. "Every individual will have at his command information and computational ability unknown before in the world," gushes Representative George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.).

Lingering gripes within the Administration that the project amounted to industrial policy were swept away by the persistence of Bush's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, and by a mid-December meeting between Budget Director Richard Darman and heads of nine computer companies concerned about U. S. competitiveness. Although the money will benefit computer and communications companies, the Administration sees the plan as boosting scientific research rather than a particular industry.

But given the monumental task of devising the needed hardware and software, hooking everyone up to networks may take decades. The project still needs a green light from lawmakers, who predict that funding it will require cuts in other megascience projects, such as the supercollider. That means skirmishes ahead. But with bills introduced this year by Brown and Gore and firm White House support, the project looks like a budget winner.