IBM’s Watson computer system.

IBM / AP Photo

President Barack Obama issued an executive order at the end of July calling for the creation of a National Strategic Computing Initiative, with the goal of building a supercomputer that can deliver 100 times the performance of current 10 petaflop systems and improving technologies used for data analytics. The order also calls for bettering the high-performance computing ecosystem and ensuring that “the benefits of the research and development advances are … shared between the United States Government and industrial and academic sectors.”

The order follows a long line of public initiatives in which the government has been a catalyst for major technological change. The rise of the early space program and the formation of the Internet in the 1960s and 1970s are the most obvious examples of this public-private role. More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has kicked-started research in self-driving vehicles and other kinds of robotics. The role of government in the tech sector has a long and complex history, but it’s often at its best when it is playing the role of catalyst, mustering public assets and will to solve large problems.

Now, as some experts question whether the pace of technological innovation is slowing, a government challenge designed to radically boost computing power has the potential to open the way for big leaps in technological capability. History suggests there is some reason for optimism, although balancing the needs of business and government can be difficult.

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency laid the groundwork for the modern Internet with ARPANET in the 1960s. Supercomputing itself got its start in the U.S. national laboratories with help from technology companies, according to a 2014 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Technology key to hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, also grew with the help of U.S. research efforts, the report said. Some of that has come out of U.S. investment in basic research, seen as a key driver of broader economic competitiveness.

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