Ivan Sutherland played a key role in foundational computer technologies. Now he sees a path for America to claim the mantle in “superconducting” chips. From a report: It has been six decades since Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, a software system that foretold the future of interactive and graphical computing. In the 1970s, he played a role in rallying the computer industry to build a new type of microchip with hundreds of thousands of circuits that would become the foundation of today’s semiconductor industry. Now Dr. Sutherland, who is 84, believes the United States is failing at a crucial time to consider alternative chip-making technologies that would allow the country to reclaim the lead in building the most advanced computers.
By relying on supercooled electronic circuits that switch without electrical resistance and as a consequence generate no excess heat at higher speeds, computer designers will be able to circumvent the greatest technological barrier to faster machines, he claims. “The nation that best seizes the superconducting digital circuit opportunity will enjoy computing superiority for decades to come,” he and a colleague recently wrote in an essay that circulated among technologists and government officials. Dr. Sutherland’s insights are significant partly because decades ago he was instrumental in helping to create today’s dominant approach to making computer chips.
In the 1970s, Dr. Sutherland, who was chairman of the computer science department at the California Institute of Technology, and his brother Bert Sutherland, then a research manager at a division of Xerox called the Palo Alto Research Center, introduced the computer scientist Lynn Conway to the physicist Carver Mead. They pioneered a design based on a type of transistor, known as complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, which was invented in the United States. It made it possible to manufacture the microchips used by personal computers, video games and the vast array of business, consumer and military products. Now Dr. Sutherland is arguing that an alternative technology that predates CMOS, and has had many false starts, should be given another look. Superconducting electronics was pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s and then pursued by IBM in the 1970s before being largely abandoned. At one point, it even made an odd international detour before returning to the United States.
This is clearly another case of too many mad scientists, and not enough