National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University

03/28/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 03/28/2024 02:36

' Creating classics throughout his lifetime, research is a lifelong competition with himself.' - Interview with Lifetime Chair Professor Steve S. Chung at the Institute of[...]

By NYCU Alumni Voice
Translated by Chance Lai

At the end of 2023, the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) in the United States unveiled its roster of Fellows, featuring Professor Steve S. Chung, Chair Professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University (NYCU), chosen as the Inventor Fellow of the year. The university relayed to the press that Prof. Chung's recognition stemmed from his "remarkable inventive achievements, showcasing a prolific innovative mindset, with these inventions exerting tangible impacts on human quality of life, economic progress, and societal well-being."

The phrase "prolific innovation" piqued the interest of NYCU Alumni Voice, leading them to query Prof. Chung on how he navigates the delicate balance between quality and quantity amidst research and teaching demands.

Research: Emphasizing Quality over Quantity
Upon entering Prof. Steve S. Chung's office, one is greeted with an atmosphere akin to an independent library, hinting at his avid reading habits. Prof. Chung explains that the secret to his bursts of inspiration lies in the accumulation of years of experience, much like "research is a competition with oneself." With each step forward, each completed study motivates the next, allowing for continual learning from past experiences. Reflecting on his 40-year teaching career and the countless students he has guided, Prof. Steve S. Chung vividly recalls the stories stored within his archives, demonstrating the importance of documentation and accumulation.

Professor Steve S. Chung's laboratory at the University of Illinois has now been relocated to Bardeen Quad. (photo from Prof. Steve S. Chung)

He also recalls the moments of his study abroad in Illinois, reminiscing about his doctoral journey following the footsteps of the semiconductor luminary Professor C. T. Sah. Professor Sah, the inventor and theoretician behind the most fundamental component of advanced computing chips such as CPUs/GPUs, the "CMOS transistor," not only brought epoch-making breakthroughs to human civilization but also pioneered the field of semiconductors. He deeply understood the path of intellectual pursuit.

When Prof. Chung applied to study in the US, gaining entry into the master's research laboratory wasn't as simple as it might seem. Prof. Sah took the process seriously, meticulously evaluating each student's academic experiences and ambition for scholarly pursuits. Only after careful consideration did he select candidates for admission, choosing only a few from among the many applicants to join the Illinois Solid State Electronics Lab (ISSEL) for study. Even Prof. Steve S. Chung himself felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue his doctoral studies at a top-tier institution, especially under the mentorship of such a distinguished figure. The master's rigorous scholarly attitude was evident in his words and actions.

Computers were yet to be commonplace during his years of study, let alone the internet. In an era when computers were still seen as massive entities, he could receive emails from Prof. Sah at three in the morning, responding to his classroom learning or assigning research tasks. The master's dedication was palpable. Among the most profound words for Prof. Steve S. Chung, almost setting the benchmark for his future path as a scholar, was this: "Research results should be classic; doing research is not about quantity but quality." Cultivating a new generation capable of making significant impacts on the future, even in learning to make important decisions and dedicating oneself to education-for Prof. Chung, is the mission they carry on their shoulders.
In 1995, Professor C. T. Sah (front row, left three) and senior student Tak Ning (front row, left two) paid a visit to National Chiao Tung University, capturing a precious moment with Professor Steve S. Chung (front row, fourth from left). (photo from Prof. Steve S. Chung)

Prof. Steve S. Chung cites the example of Taiwan's semiconductor industry taking root and flourishing in Hsinchu. In an era where nobody entirely understood information technology, let alone what semiconductors were, figures like Prof. C. T. Sah, who delved into early silicon semiconductor research, nurtured numerous talents in the field. The influence of these elites even directly affected the government's planning policies for developing high-tech industries. "Heroes shape the times, but the times also shape heroes." During Ching-kuo Chiang's presidency, the government established the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park.

Through Prof. Sah's involvement with the government's National Science Council, which bridged the connection between the United States and Taiwan, some influential and professionally qualified Chinese elites returned from the United States to Taiwan. Many of them had direct ties with Prof. Sah. These elites led Taiwan's semiconductor industry development, paving the way for the robust semiconductor industry that Taiwan boasts today, likened to an impregnable fortress guarding the nation's interests.

Accumulation: Standing Firm on the Shoulders of Giants

As Prof. Steve S. Chung says, 'Without predecessors planting trees, how can successors find shade?' While witnessing Taiwan's semiconductor technology development, he has seen and deeply felt that the pursuit of 'quality' is the cornerstone of Taiwan's success today. In the 1980s, Japan led the global semiconductor industry, reigning as a dominant force. Today, however, Taiwan leads the way, thanks to the steady progress made by generations of technology elites nurtured by Taiwan's academic community.

As technology progresses by leaps and bounds, new talents emerge with each passing era. However, a complementary relationship exists between generations, each with its strengths rather than a state of replacement. "Just like semiconductors, some argue that third-generation semiconductors are better developed than second-generation ones, suggesting that the former can replace the latter, which is completely incorrect." This is because each generation of semiconductors utilizes different technological characteristics, making them suitable for a broader range of applications.

Furthermore, Prof. Steve S. Chung also begins discussing his life philosophy using vivid and highly conceptual electronic analogies. He mentions the famous theory of transistors: "Gain bandwidth product equals a constant." Therefore, if gain represents the teacher and bandwidth represents the student, as the teacher becomes more earnest (increasing gain), the effectiveness of student learning becomes more limited (decreasing bandwidth). In other words, the more vibrant the teacher is in assisting students, the more they may hinder students from independently thinking and problem-solving.

"We often talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, but who are these 'giants'?" Prof. Steve S. Chung chuckles. "Every person is a giant. We must become our giants." This seemingly paradoxical statement encapsulates the essence of Prof. Chung's 40 years of experience. He opens a folder on his computer and removes a thick, bound volume of experiment reports from the bookshelf to illustrate. These electronic files and printed materials meticulously detail laboratory students' discussions or research notes, including what was discussed with the teacher on a given day, how tasks were allocated, and the experiment process.

Not only does each student have their learning journey, but they can also serve as a trailblazer for subsequent students, starting from scratch and progressing to the point of being able to conduct independent research. This can be seen as leaving a track for younger students in the laboratory team to follow, "If you're unsure, you can always refer back and everything becomes clear." The close connection between knowledge transfer and action is evident among Professor Steve S. Chung's successive students. They can stand on a solid foundation of knowledge, leveraging the research that senior students spent over two years on, enabling subsequent students to invest their time in more forward-thinking ideas or innovative research endeavors.
Comparisons were made between depth information generated by the research team's system (top row) and depth information obtained through the iPhone dot projector (bottom row).

"Recording and accumulating" can be said to be synonymous with Prof. Steve S. Chung. His ability to innovate prolifically and develop various inventions makes the answer almost self-evident. Prof. Chung categorizes university professors' research into two types: Evolutionary research and Revolutionary research. The former, Evolution, involves making incremental progress by following others' research, with each paper only improving methods or data. The latter is innovation. Prof. Chung believes that research can be called "Revolutionary" only if it creates a new paradigm for the world.

Especially after 2000, he relocated to Stanford University for sabbatical research, which gave him a profound realization: "This period was very beneficial for me; it allowed me to think with a fresh perspective, enabling me to break out of my original framework." For instance, he confidently explained that his research team's most significant innovation in the field of semiconductor memory can overcome the bottleneck of Floating Gate Memory technology stagnating at the 28-nanometer level. They have developed new technology capable of extending memory to below one nanometer. This idea presents both a significant challenge and a new opportunity.

Several patents are still pending, so detailed discussions cannot be shared. However, Prof. Chung continues his consistent line of thinking. He believes that sticking to existing technologies and adopting a concept of incremental improvement and correction ultimately reaches a ceiling, leading to the myth of being stuck in Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Therefore, stepping out of the framework and exploring alternative paths is necessary. There lies opportunity. Through such thinking, innovative models for future groundbreaking technologies, potentially influencing AI significantly, are nurtured.

As a scientific inventor, Prof. Steve S. Chung gestured a "reverse ㄏ" in the air to describe the inspiration for research. Progress always seems slow initially, but all those seemingly mundane discussions eventually contain the seeds of invention. Thus, as time accumulates, an exponential period of explosive growth follows.

Whether it's Evolution or Revolution, Prof. Steve S. Chung is a dedicated scholar in the fundamentals of learning and research. He meticulously examines every progress made by himself and his team in scientific research, diligently striving forward while remembering the original intent of pursuing quality. Therefore, when it comes to research, such as in the field of memory, he sets a groundbreaking milestone for himself: to move beyond the traditional applications of data storage and to expand the use of memory into broader applications in network security and the era of AI, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.