Where Pure Science Calls The Shots

Listening to Takeshi Sakamoto talk about his work at Hitachi Ltd.'s Advanced Research Lab, I have a sense of unreality. The 33-year-old PhD physicist is obsessed with a light-sensitive protein called rhodopsin, extracted from the retina of an octopus. He's training powerful microscopes on it and probing it with nuclear magnetic resonance and X-ray crystallography. He has studied its gene sequence, pondered its 455 amino acids, synthesized the genes chemically, and mass-produced them in colonies of Escherichia coli bacteria. Asked what all the excitement is about, Sakamoto coolly replies: "This protein responds differently to red and blue light. I need to understand why."

It's the kind of story you hear often--but never quite get used to--at this gleaming new facility, two hours west by train from Tokyo. Some of Sakamoto's colleagues are using gene-splicing techniques to speed up the growth of plants such as saffron and stevia, a sugar substitute. That, at least, strikes me as vaguely commercial. But I can't help wondering why Japan's premier integrated electronics firm is sinking precious funds into octopus retinas and saffron at a time when so many of its principal products are slumping.

QUANTUM LEAP. The answer, according to ARL General Manager Shojiro Asai, is hidden in the question. Precisely because mainframe computers and DRAMs are no longer making money, Hitachi needs to make a quantum leap beyond them. And basic research is the only way. Biology could turn out to be the ultimate shortcut. Just think, says Asai, of the vast amounts of genetic information that living cells pack into fantastically small dimensions. Unlocking the secret would revolutionize data storage.

Biology is just one of four parts of Asai's research agenda. The others are electron- and radiation-beam physics, software, and new materials. Each, he says, is key to creating information sciences of the 21st century. Electron beams power the world's highest-resolution microscopes. Software will enable machines to duplicate human reasoning. As for new materials, silicon isn't always going to fit the bill as a substrate for electronic and optical devices. In its place, new compounds could contain secrets that we can't even guess at. "There's no reason," says the 5l-year-old physicist, "that we can't discover another working principle, at near-atomic dimensions, where we can store and process information."

Asai dreams of a discovery so momentous that Hitachi could never monopolize it. "I'm thinking of the original transistor," he says. "It was such a huge invention that Bell Labs couldn't fully exploit it on its own. If we make a breakthrough of sufficient scale, everybody will share the benefits." Asai is convinced that if he takes the brightest researchers and hands them the best possible tools, one of them is bound to make a major breakthrough.

Commanding ARL's thrust in beam physics is Akira Tonomura, creator of one of the world's most powerful microscopes, pioneer in the study of electron waves, and one of Japan's leading candidates for a Nobel Prize. Tonomura supervises 25 other physicists in a separate wing of the lab. Their tools are five giant field-emission electron microscopes, which Tonomura originally developed at a cost of $3 million. Exploiting principles akin to optical holography, the machines can produce three-dimensional images of the gently sloping surfaces of individual atoms.

Some members of Tonomura's group are charting the unexplored contours of exotic new materials. Others are studying the characteristics that cause superconductive oxides to lose electrical resistance when chilled in liquid nitrogen. One and all, they have been drawn to Hitachi by the unparalleled equipment and expertise the firm can throw at a scientific problem. "Hitachi has the historical basis, the technical basis, and the funds to pursue this brand of physics," says 36-year-old Nobuyuki Osakabe. But the real force that lured him from academia to Hitachi was an instinct even more basic: "I came here because I wanted to see and understand physical events that no one had ever seen before."

NO SECRETS. Assaulting the frontiers of human knowledge is a common goal at ARL. And as they pursue the unknown, scientists don't have to worry about costs or results in the marketplace. That's because ARL administrators deliberately remove the product-development pressures that burden other Hitachi labs. In most of them, more than half of ongoing projects are funded by hard-driving business divisions. In contrast, the ARL gets its $33 million annual budget straight from headquarters.

Amazingly, though, there's no fortress-type feel to the place. In fact, the lab is a mecca for foreign scientists. And Asai constantly nudges his young staff to present papers at international symposiums. Suppose all this futuristic research really does produce a breakthrough, I wonder. Can Hitachi afford to display its crown jewels so openly? Answers Asai: "It's critical for people to go out and get feedback from the world's top scientists."

Perhaps. But by doing that, Hitachi is constantly tipping competitors on what's in the pipeline. On the other hand, I have spent 13 years fighting for better access to Japanese corporate research, so I find the open spirit at the Advanced Research Lab incredibly refreshing. And it may even be sensible: If Asai-san's wager is right and atomic-scale devices become a reality, there will be abundant rewards for everyone.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.