Economists tell us that productivity growth of 2 percent or more a year is essential to a healthy economy. During most of the 1993-2000 period, President Bill Clinton got that much and more, and the U.S. economy benefited from strong productivity growth in the areas of networking and personal computers.
Productivity is the single most important key to our future prosperity. The Wall Street Journal estimates that U.S. per capita income could double in 30 years if yearly productivity rates reach 2.5 percent or higher. But if the annual productivity increase is only 1.5 percent, it could take 50 years to achieve a doubling in incomes.
While the current era is marked by a welcome boom in sales of digital consumer electronics, listening to music on an iPod or downloading a digital movie probably does not do much for U.S. productivity growth, as measured by output per hour of work. Nevertheless, productivity has been healthy during the George W. Bush years. Companies have just scratched the surface of using the Internet to improve business practices.
How about the electronics industry? Moore's Law scaling may continue at its historic pace for five or 10 more years. But physical limits loom, and already the power-performance gains seen from scaling over the last 40 years are receding a serious problem indeed.
One fertile area for productivity growth lies in software creation. U.S.-based companies excel at creating code for embedded systems ranging from wireless basestations to the rovers that explore the surface of Mars.
Improvements in software productivity would make a big difference in the automotive and medical industries, for example. Automakers face daunting software reliability challenges as they embrace by-wire steering and braking, as well as in-vehicle communications and entertainment. And electronics devices which in some cases are actually being embedded in our bodies are beginning to revolutionize medical services.
Keeping ahead in the programming, debugging and testing of code that is used to empower ever-more-powerful chips is essential to productivity growth. Improving the ways that hardware and software engineers work together to create embedded systems is key to making sure that our children have a shot at enjoying the good life that comes from higher rates of output per hour of work.
Thankfully, it is not a zero-sum game.
By David Lammers, who covers embedded design and process technology from his base in Austin, Texas