The Melting Pot In America's Labs

Walk through America's best computer laboratories. The multinational complexion of the people you'll see rivals the U.N.: Top British, Chinese (mainland and Taiwanese), French, German, Indian, Israeli, Japanese, Russian, Turkish--and, of course, U.S.--scientists labor to shape the digital world to come. As the BUSINESS WEEK Special Report shows, most of the world's top computer labs are in America, but top scientists come from all over the globe.

These global assets are creating new ways of thinking about computing that will soon be shared internationally. The latest paradigm is organic. Most scientists believe that the computers of the future will be patterned, in part, on living creatures: We will talk to them, and they will talk back to us. They will extend our senses and broaden our sources of information. They will go far beyond chess to simulate such complex phenomena as stock market crashes and environmental hazards. They will reconfigure themselves when new situations arise. And they will become more pervasive in our lives, embedded in everything, performing the smallest of tasks as well the most important--helping us hear, see, and walk.

Philips Electronics, British Telecom, Sony, Edinburgh University, and other organizations are doing some of the best digital research. Yet the driving force in computer science comes from Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bell Labs, the University of Michigan, and other U.S. institutions. Why this remains so year after year is something of a mystery. But surely America's ability to meld cultures from around the world plays a major role. Talented people from all over head for these bastions of research: Somehow, they can be their most creative inside these walls. With the end of the cold war, thousands of scientists once locked behind the Iron Curtain are now free to travel. They too head for Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and other labs.

It may be that U.S. universities not only provide the best graduate-level education in computer science and electrical engineering but also impart a strong entrepreneurial bent to those who attend. Professors and students both are instilled with a belief that starting a new business is part of the accepted scheme of things. And professors move in and out of academe, launching startups, doing initial public offerings, cashing out, and returning to teach. They float between the worlds of theory and applied practice, generating a synergy between the university and the private sector that can be a powerful stimulant to creativity and innovation. Physical proximity between university labs and small companies is critical--and few countries can match the U.S. in building this kind of geography. There are roughly 50 hot-growth startups near MIT. And it's nearly impossible to find any Silicon Valley companies without roots in Stanford. In the age of the Internet, these hotbeds of innovation are global, not merely national, assets. Their discoveries are shared with virtually everyone around the world, almost simultaneously. We like to think of these computer scientists as the world's living treasures--the very best creators of our digital domain.

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