Electrical engineers need to embrace the Data Age with fresh thinking that goes beyond Moore's Law to address tectonic shifts in the fundamentals of computing.

The new realities can seem daunting but they are also energizing and, I would argue, fun. After all, tackling big, important challenges is why we got into this field in the first place.

Embracing engineering challenges has been a theme of my career. I earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and Ph.D. in physics. Since college I’ve spent 28 years pursuing innovations aimed at keeping Moore’s Law alive.

My team and I have brought several important innovations to high-volume manufacturing including pitch doubling for patterning, conformal metal depositions and the use of atomic layer deposition of high-K materials. Through this journey, there has always been a keen focus on thinking outside the box.

But what got me here – innovating almost solely at the component level – is no longer enough. If I want to remain relevant, I need to augment my knowledge and experience with entirely new ways of thinking.

First, we need to embrace a broader, systems-level view of innovation. We, who have been focused almost exclusively at the component level (shrinking the size of features on semiconductors), need to embrace technology beyond the chip. This is especially important as Moore’s Law hits fundamental barriers.

The balance of power in computing is changing. Processing, while still important, is increasingly balanced with rising importance of memory and storage technologies. We can see this in high-performance computing where the main bottleneck today isn’t so much processing but finding ways to quickly and efficiently move data.

The solution may be technologies enabling faster data access, moving the data closer to the processors or a combination of the two. One thing is certain – the solution won’t come solely from looking at the component level.

As data becomes increasingly important, finding ways to quickly and efficiently access and store it is critical everywhere from the smallest IoT node to the biggest data center. Engineers who downplay the rising importance of data and the need to take a system-level view of innovation do so at their own peril.

Second, we must be open to new ideas. Most recently, I explored the idea of using DNA to store data. It’s promising – and it just might deliver big benefits one day.

The idea got a boost after a conversation I had with a colleague in which we both realized we really didn’t understand each other – I’m a physicist, he’s a chemist. Intrigued but a bit confused, we initiated research into the viability of DNA as a storage medium which lead to a Nature Materials paper. This paper has led, in turn, to further research and an increased level of research funding by government and industry.

The bottom-line is don’t be afraid to venture beyond your comfort zone and reach out to experts in other disciplines to explore new ideas. Any one of those ideas could lead to The Next Big Breakthrough.

Finally, we need to attract fresh, young talent. People might scoff at the idea of storing data on DNA, but that idea and others like it fire the imaginations of young technologists.

I’ve seen this first-hand. We need to engage young minds beyond the traditional fields of engineering and include those who’ve studied chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics among other disciplines. We need fresh interdisciplinary insights and perspectives to keep the innovation engine humming.

We should be proud of the world-changing industry that we’ve built. But we can’t rest on our laurels. The technology world and the world at large require that we up our game.

We need to think differently, embrace creativity. It’s an exciting and dynamic time. I remain excited for what is yet to come and will drive the next phase of innovation for our industry.

*Gurtej Sandhu is a senior fellow at Micron Technology. He received the 2018 IEEE Andrew S. Grove Award*.