TUE Martijn Heck

Martijn Heck is the scientific director of the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute.

5 March

Though the Dutch National Technology Strategy is most welcome and needed, beware of pillarization, Martijn Heck warns.

A typical Dutch phenomenon is pillarization – “verzuiling” in Dutch. This means that society aligns itself along pillars of similar political or religious beliefs. Socialist, liberal and Christian pillars are examples. Each pillar has its own political parties, newspapers, television and radio associations, schools, labor unions and maybe even sports teams. This worked, until it didn’t anymore. This stratified view of society couldn’t adapt to the changes after the end of the Cold War, and by the beginning of the 21st century, globalization, neo-liberalism, conservationism and nationalism replaced and decimated most of the pillars.

Institutions become institutionalized, often outliving their purpose, when circumstances change. This went through my mind when the new Dutch National Technology Strategy was presented earlier this year. Ten key technologies are to be the focus of our national strategy. Let me first say that this is great and much needed. No comments there. However, it did make me wonder: what’s our exit strategy for such investments?

An exit strategy is a pretty common element in making a business plan. Investors need to know the end game: when can they get their money back, ideally with profits? Examples include selling the company, going to the stock market in an IPO or merging with another company. Such strategies are to be implemented if money starts running out, if competition plays up or if the market changes. Since private investors are typically quite keen on getting their money back, it’s always on their radars.

How does this work for the government and its investments? Are there exit strategies? Do we need them? Do we care? Let’s look at the Dutch case, where, much like in the rest of the world, some key deep-tech focus areas are semiconductors, photonics, quantum and AI. We allocate large investments, often in the form of Growth Fund projects, we emphasize education in these fields, we align universities and research and technology organizations, we set up organizations to manage all that, we create ecosystems with startups, scale-ups, relevant big industries, incubators and lobby groups. In other words, we ‘pillarize’ our technology landscape. Strong, but separate and parallel.

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This isn’t bad. For now. Quantum is currently mostly quantum science; it needs to be incubated and evolve into an actual technology. But when quantum computing actually becomes realistic in a decade or so, we’ll likely see a huge consolidation wave. Are we prepared for that? And how will we deal with the fact that future quantum technology might become a flavor of integrated electronics and photonics?

Photonics itself is growing, and the Netherlands has captured a strong position. However, whereas the key technology is currently labeled “optics and photonics,” the integrated-photonics field will necessarily have to merge with the field of integrated electronics and become part of the so-called heterogeneous integration paradigm in semicon. A ‘photonics pillar’ can’t drive that.

Of course, we need attention for artificial intelligence, but at the same time, we see that AI is increasingly a ‘chips’ effort rather than a standalone algorithm effort, as evidenced by the sky-high market valuation of Nvidia and OpenAI founder Sam Altman’s bold plan to raise 7 trillion dollars for AI chip factories.

Finally, where does this leave the semicon pillar? Of course, we need to strengthen existing efforts and trends toward More Moore, but the field needs to stop sulking that it lacked specific attention and funding over the last few decades. Instead, it needs to embrace the inclusive and heterogeneous era of More than Moore and beyond Moore.

As stated, this isn’t a plea to limit government investments. Nor is it a plea to change the course of existing efforts. This is a plea to consider the foreseeable end of our carefully constructed technology pillars and to proactively develop the ‘what’s next’ scenarios beyond 2030.

Pillars have a tendency to stay around for a long time, but, however impressive the Forum Romanum or the Acropolis may be, the Dutch economy shouldn’t become such a tourist attraction and a curiosity of a bygone age.