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ORNL on Tennessee’s Technology Future

 By Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory 

How the head of DOE’s biggest science and energy lab thinks our state should compete in the global marketplace

My participation in a recent technology conference in India reinforced Tennessee’s potential for competing on a global scale, as well as the urgency with which we must pursue the opportunities before us.

The #FUTURE global summit was held in Kerala, which bills itself as India’s first digital state. Government officials there consider internet access to be a basic human right, and they are aggressively pursuing “100 percent e-literacy” for Kerala’s 30 million-plus residents.

About 2,000 business leaders, academics, and government officials attended the two-day event. Speakers and panelists included the former chair of the Reserve Bank of India (currently a professor at University of Chicago), the state’s economic adviser (from Harvard), the co-founders of Infosys, a $40 billion company, the CIO of Lufthansa Group, and many other leaders. An interesting data point: India counted 70 self-made billionaires in 2017, compared to eight in 2005, and 60 percent of ultra-high-net-worth individuals in India are younger than 40.

My panel addressed technological disruption, and I specifically reflected on the imminent impacts of artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and autonomous transportation, topics of great interest to our researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The lab is now completing installation of Summit, which will be the most powerful artificial intelligence computer in the world when we bring it online this summer and start using it to drive innovation in areas such as digital manufacturing and personalized medicine.

We are considering how unprecedented computing power can help us to better understand the information available from powerful research tools and massive data sets. Meanwhile, our National Transportation Research Center continues to push the limits of vehicle technology, and we are developing materials and systems to enable new types of vehicle control systems and to secure them.

The exponential growth curve forecast by Gordon Moore in the 1960s – a doubling of computing power every two years or so – now means every increase brings transformative impacts. It takes focused effort to keep pace. If we hope to remain competitive and attractive as a state, we must be serious about identifying technology’s potential, anticipating its impacts, and preparing ourselves for constant adaptation to change.

We are fortunate in Tennessee to be home to the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy lab at Oak Ridge, where I began my career in 1987. Chattanooga has one of the nation’s most innovative utilities, the Electric Power Board, which demonstrated the power of bringing bandwidth to every home. Our state Legislature just positioned us for the commercial potential of blockchain technologies, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt provide academic leadership in key research areas, and we remain an attractive location by virtue of geography and the natural beauty of our state.

We must recognize, though, that the competitive landscape is changing. More people can live anywhere in the world to make their digital living. The #FUTURE discussions brought me a powerful analogy: Information is like oil. It is the fuel of our digital future, and it flows globally, in an instant, at increasing speed and volume. Our preparations now will determine the quality of our future, perhaps sooner than we think.


Thomas Zacharia is director of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest science and energy research facility in the country, and a Launch Tennessee board member. Find him on Twitter @ORNL.

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