Eureka Moments
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Eureka Moments

If there’s one question we get more than any other from new readers and Website visitors, it is something along the following lines: “I want to get into the computer graphics industry. What kind of skills do I need?”

The advice we give is the same, whether a person wants to break in as an artist, animator, or product developer. And that's because what executives have told us they are looking for is similar, no matter which area of the industry they represent.

Indeed, what we've been hearing for the past few years is that to be successful, people can no longer afford to be one-dimensional. Not only must potential employees have familiarity with the broad, horizontal spectrum of the art and science of visual computing, they also must have deep, vertical expertise in one particular area.

But now, even being two-dimensional may no longer be enough to ensure success. Given the complexity of next-generation projects and the multidisciplinary work groups arising to tackle them, employees must possess a third dimension of abilities, namely the communication skills to effectively share specialized information with their colleagues.

This point was driven home by Stan Williams, director of quantum science research at Hewlett-Packard and one of the speakers at the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT last month. In fact, Williams is depending on people with this unique mix of skills to help him fulfill his challenge of developing futuristic computer systems.

In terms of processing capabilities, current computers are roughly on the scale of a cockroach, says Williams. They're so extraordinarily crude, that given our present knowledge, we should be able to increase the efficiency of computers by a factor of one billion, he believes. "We should be able to build a handheld device that can operate with a single AAA battery and outperform all the computers on Earth."

Alas, achieving this leap in efficiency may take some 50 years of ingenious invention, Williams predicts. That's approximately how long it took to realize the same improvement since the early ENIAC computer of the late 1940s.

Of course, the task Williams faces is to crank up the efficiency by this same factor in as short a time as possible. And his strategy for reaching that goal has been to assemble a team of experts in vastly disparate fields, including computer science, quantum physics, solid-state chemistry, and molecular biology, to build nanoscale 3D molecular electronic devices.

The reasoning behind this approach is based on the belief that brilliant flashes of insight—so-called "eureka" moments—do not occur as often to people working alone. Rather, breakthrough observations are more likely to be made when several people with broadly different backgrounds work together and realize that seemingly unrelated concepts can be combined in exciting new ways.

So for people hoping to enter a given field, perhaps the best advice is to figure out what they like and become really good at it, then take a science journalism course and learn to translate highly technical information from one field for someone in another.

That process won't be easy. But if today's and tomorrow's top researchers—whose minds truly are the most powerful computers on Earth—learn to work in parallel, not only can they be assured of finding employment in the fields of their choice, but the eureka moments they experience from this new kind of collaboration could be incredible.

Phil LoPiccolo