With a nudge more typical of the Japanese than the Americans, the United States government has figured out what technologies - from superconductors to computers - American companies should target and how the government can help them succeed. Time and again, US companies have developed technologies only to see other nations - especially Japan - parlay them into wild commercial successes. The videocassette recorder is a case in point. So the Commerce Department decided it is time to plan ahead.
Clarence Brown, deputy secretary of commerce, yesterday told reporters: ``I am firmly convinced that America's ability to exploit a new set of emerging technologies with new market potential in the year 2000 and beyond will play a big role in determining the country's economic successes or failures well into the next century.''
In April 1986, the National Bureau of Standards identified 17 emerging technologies in seven major groups that will make a big contribution to the US economy in the year 2000.
The list holds few surprises, and some have already made their way into the marketplace. For example, plastic composites that are more tensile and stronger than steel are already in today's cars.
Many technologies would touch people's palates. Biotechnology would make plants more productive and food cheaper, more varied, and plentiful. Thin-layer technology could preserve fruit year round with a coating of chemicals, for example.
The seven targeted areas:
Advanced materials. Ceramics are a key ingredient to making superconductors practical. If they do become feasible, they will likely revolutionize the energy industry by making transmission of power far more efficient. Mr. Brown says the country would save $30 billion in electrical costs.
Electronics. This includes making semiconductors (the brains of computers) and breakthroughs in voice and data transmission.
Automation. Flexible manufacturing plants, for example, can make several different products on the same line, thus reducing costs and improving competitiveness.
Biotechnology. This includes genetic engineering as well as chemical manufacturing.
Computers. Both micro-electronics and supercomputers are targeted.
Medical technology. Ways to diagnose and treat disease are important, Brown says, and the issue has become urgent with the spread of AIDS.
Thin-layer technology. This can preserve not just food but sensitive devices such as semiconductors.
The Commerce Department claims that there are some barriers to turning these technologies into profits. High interest rates and the recently passed tax law do not encourage companies to make the investment in new equipment and research, Brown says.
Nebulous antitrust laws keep companies from joining forces to develop marketable technologies, he notes. Sematech, the much vaunted consortium for developing semiconductor technology, is on questionable legal grounds because of this. The Commerce Department has long wanted to change antitrust laws. This has stirred considerable controversy.
Some of the barriers are abroad - foreign import laws, for example - and can be felled only through government pressure. But other barriers are erected by American business itself in its short-term thinking and dependence on the huge American market.
``The people who work in and run America's factories,'' Brown notes, ``must take the lead.''