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Reflections on America's technology future

William C. Norris is a voracious reader and note taker. At night, the white-thatched chairman of Control Data Corporation (CDC) often lugs home piles of books and corporate reports.

The wooden shelves behind the desk in his 14th-floor office at CDC's world headquarters here are stacked with papers and bookish reports. This septuagenarian has even been known to read while walking up and down the stairways of the corporate building, as he often does just for the exercise. On business trips, he is notorious for filling notebooks with observations and comments.

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Much of this brainstorming ends up in idea-memos that filter down through the ranks of Norris's giant computer and financial services firm. Lately, though, more and more of his thought has gone into one of his enduring concerns beyond the company's domain: the competitiveness of the United States in the world marketplace.

Making big money by meeting social needs

The blunt and, at times, dour chairman is perhaps best known and sometimes maligned in corporate circles for his philosophy of social-oriented capitalism. He is a leading disciple of the idea that big business can make money by meeting social needs. Over the last two decades this philosophy has resulted in the investment of millions of CDC dollars in such projects as computer-based education, computer courses for small businesses and farms, and urban revitalization projects.

This unorthodox approach has contributed to Norris's being labeled ''visionary'' by some and ''foolish'' or ''crazy'' by others.

Equally controversial, perhaps, is one other of his favorite themes: That the best antidote to rising foreign competition, particularly from Japan, in the competitive world of high technology is more cooperation. It was this idea - as well as the degree of US technological strength in general - that the maverick chairman recently discussed in a Monitor interview in his office overlooking the marshy Minnesota River.

How to stop America's downhill slide

''We are sliding today,'' he says of America's technological position in the world. ''I think the single most effective way to stop that is through cooperation.''

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Cooperation, in his view, should take place among companies as well as among industries and states. The rationale is one of simple survival: Many heads are better than one in coping with the challenge of government-supported research abroad. Moreover, by themselves companies are not always willing to undertake the risky, long-range research required in many areas today.

There is also, he argues, vastly too much needless duplication of research and development. ''We just are not using our resources efficiently,'' he asserts. ''Had we started cooperating earlier, we'd be in a much better position today.''

That more companies aren't entering into cooperative ventures certainly isn't for any lack of trying on Norris's part. Over the past 20 years, he has involved CDC in many joint ventures and technical agreements. It was also about 15 years ago that he first began advocating the idea of setting up a research cooperative among some of America's top computer firms.

The modern incarnation of this idea - the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) - was formed in 1982. The research consortium, made up of some of what are usually the country's most competitive microelectronic and computer firms, is now setting up shop in Austin, Texas.

Fear of disclosing company secrets

Still, Norris doesn't predict any wholesale acceptance of his cooperation theory on the part of corporate America any time soon. True, a number of other industries - steel and copper, for example - are said to be considering research cooperatives. And Congress recently passed legislation changing the nation's antitrust laws, making it easier for companies to collaborate.

But the pooling of resources runs counter to the American way of doing business, and fear runs deep among executives about giving away company secrets. ''Industry is bound up in its own culture, and it is not going to get out from that overnight,'' he says. ''That culture does not include cooperation. (But) I would say there are a half dozen MCCs under consideration.''

States, not Washington, can spur innovation

On a broader level, Norris is also pushing the idea of partnerships among states. He believes, in fact, that it is the states, not the federal government, that will have to take a front-line role in spurring industrial innovations. ''The federal government is not down where the action is,'' he says.

The argument for state cooperation is similar: Why should every state set up a biotechnology or supercomputer institute, when one regional center might be more efficient? Areas he considers ripe for such state cooperation include acid rain research, hazardous waste disposal, advanced materials development, and supercomputer research, among other things. ''Every state likes to have something on home plate,'' he says. ''(But) there is an enormous scope of effort required here. Each state can have an institute with satellites located in other states.''

US-Japan joint ventures needed

At the international level, too, he advocates more resource pooling. He believes there are plenty of frontiers - fusion energy, high-energy physics, ocean science - that could be tackled better jointly than individually. As a first step, he suggests US research partnerships with Great Britain and Japan: Great Britain because it's ''second only to the US in creating commercializable research,'' and Japan because it would be a way to help correct the ''imbalance'' in the flow of technology.

''If they (the Japanese) participate in developing the technology, then you don't have the problem of inequitable flows. You build equity into it. They pay their proper share right from the beginning.''

But why should the Japanese want to share any know-how they may have developed?

''It takes decades to build up a university research system like we have here in the US,'' Norris says. ''And they've had access to that. They'd want to continue to have access to that. So they'll cooperate.''

America is ahead in supercomputer race

On another subject - supercomputers - Norris sees the US still out in front of Japan despite recent claims by Japanese companies, now poised to enter the US market, that their new ultrafast machines can beat what America has to offer. ''We are beating them now because the technology is still advancing,'' he says. ''At some point, when the advancement slows down, then they'll be able to use their targeting practices, jockey the prices around, and be a serious threat.

''They may have an exotic piece of hardware that may run a little bit faster, '' he adds. ''But when you are talking about solving problems, I don't think they can do it to the degree that we (our machines) can.''

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