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Computer chip chase with Japan has US mobilizing for 1988 win

By John DillinStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1983


American companies are on the verge of launching an unprecedented joint-research program to leapfrog the best Japanese technology in computer chips.

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The goal: a 4 million-bit computer chip that could seize the lead for US firms by 1988.

The research effort, which could involve more than 20 corporations, is being strongly encouraged by the US Commerce Department. It may also eventually get financial help from the Defense Department. If successful, it could:

* Help the United States regain its traditional lead in the vitally important computer-chip industry and slow or reverse the loss of business to Japan.

* Continue reducing the price of computers and other memory-related devices that are now being used in more and more consumer products such as autos, televisions, watches, calculators, video games, and even popcorn poppers.

* Ensure US military planners access to the most advanced equipment for use in aircraft and other weapons systems in the 1990s.

Spearheading the 4-megabit chip program would be the Semiconductor Research Corporation. SRC is a growing industry group that includes some of the real ''blue chips'' of the electronics industry - companies like IBM, Intel Corporation, General Electric, and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Final details of the project are still being hammered out. But if it goes as expected, industry insiders say, the program would bypass the next two generations of computer-chip technology with the goal of giving the United States a two-year lead over Japan.

All of this can be critically important to the future of the American economy.

Computer chips are at the heart of some of the most advanced (and profitable) products in the world today. They are vital to computers, robotics, aerospace technology, communications systems, and ''smart'' weapons.

The US has traditionally been the leader in computer-chip production and technology. But several years ago, Tokyo singled out the industry as an area where Japan could become the dominant force.

The Semiconductor Industry Association, an American organization, estimates that from 1976 to 1982, Japanese semiconductor companies received government aid totaling between $507 million and $2 billion.

The results have been devastating to US companies.

In the early days of computer-chip manufacturing, a large number of American producers were in the business. Today, few dare to compete with the Japanese juggernaut.

The first generation of computer chips, the 1K dynamic RAM, which came on the market in about 1970, was capable of storing some 1,000 bits of information. (RAM stands for random-access memory, in which the stored information can be changed by the user.) Fourteen US firms produced this size chip. Eight Japanese companies did.

In 1973, the next generation, the 4K chip (some 4,000 bits of information), was produced by 15 American firms and only six Japanese companies. The 16K chip, a more complex device that became widely available in 1978, was produced by 12 US companies, six Japanese.