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NSF & Congress


Dr. Bajcsy

Ruzena Bajcsy
Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering
National Science Foundation

Before the Subcommittee on Basic Research
House Committee on Science
September 12, 2000

Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Johnson, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing. I welcome this opportunity to discuss exciting new directions in computer science and engineering.

These new directions have the potential to revolutionize every facet of our lives. President Clinton alluded to these trends in his State of the Union address when he spoke about the prospect of "molecular computers the size of a tear drop with the power of today's fastest supercomputers."

What had been dismissed as science fiction is now starting to materialize. The example used by the President comes from the work of Jim Heath at UCLA and Stan Williams at Hewlett Packard. This fundamental work -- supported by both NSF and DARPA -- aims to build electronic circuits from the bottom-up, starting at the molecular level.

The results of the research we are supporting now will emerge in about 10 years as the pace of improvements to silicon based computing slows down. As it slows, we want the nation to be ready to continue to be the leader in innovations in computing and communication. That leadership will depend on advances in the new technologies beyond silicon that we are discussing today. Molecular and chemical devices, quantum computers and optical computing and communications are the technologies that we are exploring now in anticipation that one or more will be the leadership technologies in ten or twenty years.

The science and engineering behind these is some of the most exciting and challenging work today. New ideas, theories, processes and devices are being developed unlike any seen before. As just one example, understanding how the electrical properties of a single molecule change when it is flexed by another electrical charge is central to molecular computing; to understand the science as well as the engineering of building such devices we must draw on many scientific and engineering disciplines.

The NSF is particularly well suited to support research in these areas. NSF focuses on basic research. Most of our support is for research at universities and we have many ways to support university researchers to work across disciplines, with industry researchers, and with researchers in other nations. NSF is the principal source of funds that support graduate training in science and engineering; the young people we support and train in these emerging technologies will become the faculty and industry researchers that the nation will rely on to advance and develop these new computing methods. And, of course, NSF also funds facilities that support the university research community and enable cooperation with industry. NSF's Initiatives in Information Technology Research and in Nanoscale Science and Engineering provide mechanisms to address the interdisciplinary research that these ideas require.

In my comments today, I would like to address five general points. First is a brief overview of the science and engineering challenges and accomplishments to date. My colleagues at this hearing will be able to address this in greater detail. Then I will speak to four aspects of the Federal role in these exciting new areas: how the NSF is supporting and coordinating this research, multi-agency activities and coordination, the relationship of federally supported research with industry, and lastly, international activities in these areas.

Silicon Chips and Moore's law; Beyond Silicon's Limits

Since the invention of the silicon integrated circuit in 1961 to the present, the number of devices that can be place on a single silicon chip has roughly doubled every 12 to 18 months. This means that every ten years, the number of devices on chips increases about a hundred-fold. This is done by shrinking device sizes and is achieved by constant improvements in chemistry, photolithography, clean rooms, and other efforts. This doubling rate is known as Moore's law. For the computing industry, the shrinking devices and increasing density has enabled the information technology revolution through staggering increases in speed and functionality of computers accompanied by astonishing decreases in costs.

We know that this cannot continue for long - the size of atoms is a very hard limit and very close in time. Even before that size is reached, small devices on silicon chips (they are now as small as 200 nanometers or about 1/50th the diameter of a human hair) are facing limits due to electron leakage across small numbers of atoms, uniformity of mixing dopants in semiconductors, dissipating heat from increasing numbers of devices on small chips, and other problems.

If we are to continue to see improvements in the performance and cost of computing, we must go beyond silicon. The technologies discussed today - chemical and molecular devices and quantum computing explore these new frontiers for computing through different approaches.

Chemical and Biomolecular Computing

Chemical principles, such as the switching gates developed by Heath and Williams, are potentially smaller and faster than silicon transistors and operate at lower energy levels. At present, research is identifying chemical substances with required electrical, mechanical, and other properties. We anticipate that these devices cannot be placed precisely and reliably on chips (as is done with silicon), so research is also addressing concepts such as self-assembly in which the shape of molecules dictates that they will form themselves in regular assemblages. We also support research on massive fault-tolerance to find techniques for good devices to assemble and operate as reliable functional units even in the presence of many faulty units.

Biological principles are the basis for DNA computing. Much as DNA sequences store information in the genome, DNA can also store information that represents complex scheduling problems, data-bases or other information. Since 1994, researchers with NSF support have been exploring methods to store and manipulate information in DNA. These methods are based on DNA fragments mixing in water solutions rather than ordered materials on surfaces. These methods have potential for very high degrees of parallelism with low material cost and energy requirements. Research challenges include a new and unfamiliar programming model, finding methods to detect low concentration "answers" in solutions, and characterizing the sorts of problems that could be efficiently solved.

Quantum Computing

Quantum phenomena are the latest in the quest for new principles to be used for computing purposes. The mysteries of the quantum world have challenged many in university classrooms, so this hearing room may not be the place for an advanced physics lecture. The quantum world has two mysterious phenomena that we are exploring for computing and communication.

The first is the notion of quantum "state" as exhibited by the spins of atomic particles. In silicon devices, every bit is a "0" or a "1" -- an "on" or "off." Atomic particles have state also spinning clockwise or counterclockwise -- but until that spin is observed, the direction is a probability of one direction versus the other. Thus a particle can be in two states at once; these particles are called qubits, short for quantum bits. Two qubits can be in four states and 20 particles in a million. A new field of quantum algorithms has demonstrated that such devices can solve arithmetic problems (factoring numbers) and search problems much faster than conventional computers by exploiting these properties of devices being in many states at once. In the steps that a silicon computer uses to seek a single solution for a complex problem, a quantum computer can potentially explore all the solutions at once -- if our research shows us the methods to harness the power of these quantum devices.

The second mystery of the quantum world is entangled states; two particles can have linked spins even though they are at a distance. Manipulating one particle and then reading the spin of the other, linked, particle is the basis of quantum information teleportation. This has been demonstrated in laboratory conditions and appears to be feasible way to securely distribute cryptographic keys over tens of miles.

The research challenges of quantum computing are enormous. To mention just a few general areas of research: new types of algorithms are needed that utilize being in multiple states, new devices that have coherent spin states immune to environment hazards are being invented, and many device forms -- such as liquids for nuclear magnetic resonance manipulation, ion traps, quantum dots, etc. -- are being considered.

My colleagues can expand on their work in these areas, but I want to emphasize just a few points from this overview:

  • the potential of these chemical and quantum computing devices is enormous,
  • assuring that America is poised for leadership when these new technologies are ready for development is essential to our future,
  • these areas have attracted some of best and brightest scientists, engineers and graduate students in the nation to work on these very exciting ideas, and
  • our support for this work must be stable, long term, and flexible to assure that this research will draw as needed on the traditional disciplines even while it creates new ones.

NSF Support for Computing Beyond Silicon

The NSF has many modes for support of this research. I want to mention a few in particular. The Information Technology Research Initiative, which will announce its first awards tomorrow, has a "revolutionary computing" component that will make several awards in these areas. The initiative allows NSF to identify areas for research, to encourage our supported scientists to build teams that cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries, and to make larger awards with extended durations that are necessary for longer range research. A second initiative, Nanoscale Science and Engineering will also support activities for these areas, especially the necessary inventions to build and assemble the small devices that these new computing technologies will require.

NSF's core funding in disciplinary research is another important component of our support for these activities. Program such as Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) provide opportunities for university researchers to work with industry researchers and vice versa. One example of GOALI support is the collaboration between Jim Heath of UCLA and Stan Williams of Hewlett Packard that led to the chemical gates already mentioned. Awards for research in computer science, materials science, physics, electrical engineering and other disciplines are supporting researchers and graduate students in these areas.

NSF Centers programs are another avenue for supporting these efforts. A new center for NanoBioTechnology at Cornell in New York and the Center for Synthesis, Growth, and Analysis of Electronic Materials at the University of Texas are two of the Science and Technology Centers that are especially relevant to these efforts. The Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science at Rutgers in New Jersey has conducted basic research on quantum and DNA computing algorithms. Several of the Engineering Research Centers perform supportive research for these new computing technologies, including the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, the Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems, at the University of Colorado, and the Center for Compound Semiconductor Microelectronics, at the University of Illinois.

The NSF has numerous, flexible mechanisms to capitalize on these emerging research areas and to support projects targeting individual researchers, groups of researchers, graduate training, collaborations with industry.

US Federal Agencies Activities

I will briefly summarize the activities and coordination of these activities across multiple agencies.

For Quantum Information Science (QIS) there is Coordinating Oversight group that promotes a coherent national program. This group consists of representatives of all the federal sponsors and it meets twice a year. Participating agencies are Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Agency, National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy. The overall support level for QIS has risen from about $1M in FY 1995 to over $30M in FY2000. Approximately 66% of this investment is from mission agencies and offices, with the remainder from the NSF. Research thrusts include foundations of QIS, quantum algorithms and software, quantum communication, quantum computation, qubit implementation concepts, applications to clock synchronization, imaging, and other areas.

The Information Technology Research and Development activity across multiple agencies is also coordinating research in new technologies for high-performance computing. I chair the ITR&D coordinating committee and NSF staff are closely involved in these coordination efforts.

In DNA computing NSF is currently spending approximately $2.3M for FY2000. We estimate NSF's overall bio-molecular computing expenditure, to be about $5M. The optical computing and communication expenditure is hard to estimate since it is coupled with building the infrastructure, which is very expensive (approximately $35M).

At NSF we have several programs across the Agency with emphasis in the Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and Engineering directorates. Furthermore in our NSF wide initiative programs such as the Information Technology Research (ITR), Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) and Science and Technology centers (STC) Programs.

The role of the NSF in this national effort is central and clear. As articulated in the proceedings of an NSF-sponsored workshop entitled "Quantum Information Science", the NSF has a mandate to provide stable support to fundamental studies of the foundations of QIS on university campuses, thereby ensuring the constant flow of new ideas, people, and tools needed to assume a leading role internationally in this and other similar promising technologies.

The International Perspective

We have mentioned our concern with leadership for coming decades. The European Community and Japan are most prominent in their support for these areas. Their investments are briefly summarized here:

Quantum Information Processing and Communication In the European Union

The Quantum Information Processing and Communication Initiative (QIPC) was launched by the EU in January 2000 with total funding of $15.6 million. The areas of coverage in QIPC are:

  • Cryptography and Communication
  • Theory and Algorithms
  • Implementation in Atomic Physics and Solid State physics.

There is support for substantial theoretical work, and the EU plans to have 5 working groups and a network of excellence which will link researchers in multiple universities. Overall the EU program is a long-term (5-10 year) high-risk, forward looking basic research program.

Quantum Computer R&D in Japan

In Japan, the investment in Quantum Computer R&D will reach approximately $15M in 2000. The support is distributed via the Japanese Science and Technology Corporation (JST), Ministry of Posts and telecommunication (MPT), the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (MONBUSHO), the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and companies such as NTT,NEC, Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi.

Major projects supported by JST are in Functional Evolution of Materials and Devices based on Electron/Photon Related Phenomena; Quantum effects, and quantum entanglement. The Photonic Information technologies are being supported by MPT basic research laboratories. MONBUSHO supports a number of university professors who are engaged in theory of NMR quantum computation, quantum Turing machines, and related topics.

MITI on the other hand is trying to realize qubits, that is, establish a reliable system to identify quantum bits for computing purposes. Quantum computing is very fashionable now in Japan, and is considered ambitious and futuristic. With state-of-art electronics technology and expertise, plus building on their nations strengths in nanostructure capabilities, Japan hopes to catch the West and perhaps to make advances in Quantum Computer developments in the near future.


A new and exciting science has emerged in this intersection of Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, and Engineering. The motivation has largely come from the realization that Moore's Law will reach a dead-end in the next 20 years. The enabling concepts have been created by a small number of visionaries such as Richard Feynman, Charles Bennett, Jim Heath, Leonard Adleman and Peter Shor.

This is a high-risk, high-payoff field, and many years of basic research into new hardware and software technologies will be needed to unlock the potential of this science and technology. Quantum, chemical and DNA computing are all radically different approaches to information science and technology. They offer the possibility of new paradigms in computation and data processing, data storage and transmission, cryptography and information security, as well as new quantum-based technologies.

We do not know today with any certainty when and how these new computing methods will come to fruition. This is an exquisite example of the importance of Federal support of fundamental research at the intellectual frontier. While we earnestly seek the benefits of the computing capabilities that these advances would unleash, it is important for the U.S. to maintain a leadership position in each of these areas.

Federal Agencies across government coordinate their activities to provide coherent management of this emerging field, so that each agency's needs are met without duplication. It is rather difficult to compare who is spending how much on this research because comparisons of investments by Japan and Europe for research on quantum computing and/or photonic computing are not necessarily equivalent. Neither the EU nor Japan are accounting for DNA or biomolecular computing.

The NSF support modes have been very important to initiating this research and its subsequent growth. I have mentioned the NSF initiatives and the Information Technology Research program that is announcing its first year's awards tomorrow with the $90 million that kicked off the program. I would like to mention a few of the awards in Revolutionary Computing that will be announced this week.

One example in the ITR initiative is to the California Institute of Technology. This five year award with anticipated funding of $5.0 million will support the establishment of the Institute for Quantum Information. Another award to the University of Kansas will support research on fast superconducting qubit and qugate devices for quantum computing. A third award to Duke University will support research on self-assembly of DNA nanoscale structures for computation. These are just a few of 11 awards that NSF will announce in the revolutionary computing area under the ITR competition.

Mr. Chairman, let me conclude by thanking you for providing an opportunity to highlight these emerging and exciting fields of research, and I would be pleased to respond to any questions that you might have.

See also: Hearing Summary