25. THE FUTURE DELIVERED: ECSEL JU AND DECADES OF INNOVATION
"It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus." Before reading further, take a guess at when this quote was published. You'd be forgiven for placing it just before the 'wireless revolution' of the 1990s. In fact, Nikola Tesla suggested this in 1909 - 88 years before the invention of Wi-Fi and almost a century before the first recognisably modern smartphone.
The collaboration game
Tesla may have been the archetypal 'lone innovator', working every single day for up to 15 hours, but technological breakthroughs are more often the result of enormous levels of collaboration. Since 2014, a good chunk of this has taken place within ECSEL Joint Undertaking, an EU-driven, public-private partnership which funds innovation in electronic components and systems. But what exactly is innovation? I'm a fan of entrepreneur Jorge Barba's definition: "innovation is the future delivered."
For ECSEL, this future includes the ever-further digitisation of industry, the large-scale deployment of safe, intelligent vehicles and open technology platforms for medical devices and systems, among other things. By the time it concludes in 2024, 90 projects and over 3000 companies, universities and research institutions will have utilised five billion euros for RD&I across Europe. As with Tesla's wireless apparatus, we may be waiting decades to uncover the full impact of ECSEL. And a deeper delve into a few historical breakthroughs suggests that this is the norm rather than the exception.
Solutions looking for problems
Although the theoretical foundations for both the laser and the maser (an acronym for 'Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation') were first established by Albert Einstein in 1917, it would be another 36 years before the latter was realised. Various notable physicists - Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr among them - had argued that this would violate Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and therefore prove impossible. Yet by 1960, the same principle behind this maser device had been refined to create the first ever Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
Even so, the laser was initially considered "a solution looking for a problem" by many and would remain so for some time. Only in 1974 would it find a useful application in the form of the supermarket barcode scanner, followed four years later by the LaserDisc. Today, lasers are used in everything from fibre-optic communication and missile defence to welding and surgery. Eastman Kodak's laboratories in New York have even produced a less practical but drinkable laser made of an alcoholic mixture. Almost all of us likely encounter lasers every day without realising it.
As a second example, the earliest recognisable concepts for integrated circuits emerged in the 1940s with the stated intention of creating smaller, cheaper hearing aids. If we want to be a little lenient with the definition, we might even trace the origins of ICs back to the Loewe 3NF vacuum tube of the 1920s - an early attempt to combine several components in one device solely to avoid a German tax based on a radio receiver's total number of tube holders. Decades-worth of IC advancements have since enabled not only computers and smartphones but also an increasing array of home appliances with digital features.
ICs have progressed to levels which would surely have been unimaginable to early refiners of the concept. Just this month, CPLS interviewed the coordinator of SeNaTe, an ECSEL project which enabled commercial node chips of just seven nanometres in size. It's only been three years since SeNaTe came to an end but new projects are already setting their sights on commercial two-nanometre technologies. Somewhat surprisingly, Moore's Law - the observation that the number of transistors in an IC doubles every two years - holds true 56 years after it was coined.
The future delivered
This somewhat invisible march of technological progress has
been on my mind recently as CPLS is currently fulfilling a copywriting role in
the transition from ECSEL JU to its successor programme: Key Digital
Technologies (KDT). Speaking anecdotally, ECSEL seems to be almost completely
unknown outside of technology circles, and I expect KDT to be much the same. In turn, future breakthroughs (such as automated driving or quantum computing)
may also appear to suddenly arrive without much of a precedence, obscuring the
many years of work in these fields. It's a shame in a way that such programmes
aren't more recognised and celebrated but then again, history suggests that
this doesn't stand in the way of success. I look forward seeing where today's
achievements take us.