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Saturday, July 20, 2024

The global might of the tiny chip


CHIP WAR: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology

Author: Chris Miller

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India

Pages: 350

Price: Rs 799

On April 19, 1965, an article with a title only an engineer could love — “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits” — appeared in Electronics magazine, a trade journal about the radio industry.

The earnest meditation on component-cramming by Gordon E Moore, an electronics engineer who went on to run Intel, should have been a niche exercise. Instead, it may be the most influential trade magazine article ever published. By extrapolating from his observations in the nascent industry near San Francisco, Moore managed to foretell the entire future of computing.

Most notably, he predicted that the number of transistors that an engineer could cram on a chip of silicon would double about every two years. This projection has been borne out so impressively over the decades that it is now known as Moore’s Law. Sixty years ago, four transistors could fit on a chip. Today some 11.8 billion can.

The extraordinary excitement of Moore’s Law, and the precarity of its ever-upward promise, are central to the pulse-quickening pace of Chris Miller’s new book, Chip War which chronicles the development, proliferation and strategic deployment of the chips that now animate everything from cars to toys to nukes. Chip War makes a whale of a case: That the chip industry now determines both the structure of the global economy and the balance of geopolitical power.

But the book is not a polemic. Rather, it’s a non-fiction thriller. The characters are wonderfully eccentric. Some are deeply unsavoury. At the start, there’s William Shockley, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and, later, an ignominious eugenicist. Shockley coinvented the transistor, which now makes up the bulk of the elements crammed by the billions onto silicon chips.

In 1955, Shockley opened Shockley Semiconductor, in Mountain View, Calif., in part to be near his elderly mother, who lived in Palo Alto. That contingency is one reason the ancestral home of semiconductors is the San Francisco Bay Area. But the actual founding of Silicon Valley is attributed to the “traitorous eight,” a group of engineers, including Moore, who split with Shockley in 1957 because he was both so nasty and so unable to think commercially. The eight men collectively started Fairchild . Their leader was the Iowa-born Bob Noyce, the beloved inventor of the microchip. Noyce founded Intel with Moore, and was known until he died in 1990 as the mayor of Silicon Valley.

At the start, the Soviets wanted a piece of the chip game. Miller describes how furtive exchanges of semiconductor research between Moscow and Stanford in the 1960s created a Cold War arms race that shadowed the nuclear one. The spy games of the period also come to life. Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr, Communist New Yorkers and trained engineers, joined Julius Rosenberg’s spy ring, fled to the USSR and helped build the Soviet computer industry. Alas, the bureaucrats under Nikita Khrushchev refused to let Soviet scientists pursue their own passions, forcing them to do the undignified work of copying the integrated circuits produced by Texas Instruments. In this way, they fell behind, unable to keep up as chip engineers, in adherence to Moore’s Law, charged ahead at breakneck speed.

Europe’s failure to grasp the importance of transistors comes through in a great story about the French president Charles de Gaulle sniffing at a transistor radio — a gift from Hayato Ikeda, the prime minister of Japan, in 1962. Only much later, in the Netherlands, did Europe make its own breakthrough with the invention of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, a technology that continued to shrink transistors when the progress of miniaturisation temporarily stalled. According to Miller, one Dutch company now commands 100 per cent of the EUV market, without which cutting-edge chips can’t be built.

Then there is China. What Xi Jinping’s China has failed to do is grab its expected share of the chip market. With massive government assistance, the country produces 15 per cent of the world’s silicon chips, according to Miller’s statistics, a relatively meagre piece of the pie, as China clearly cannot rely on the private capital that has poured into the semiconductor sector in the rest of East Asia. The beneficiaries of this largess include Japan (which makes 17 per cent of the world’s chips) and Taiwan (a whopping 41 per cent).

Taiwan is the Mount Olympus of silicon chips. At its summit is Morris Chang (91), founder of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Having grown up peripatetic in China and British Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War, he crossed the ocean, completed an engineering degree at MIT and, in 1958, landed at Texas Instruments, where he set his mind to improving the chip-making machinery.

In what would prove a terrible error, Texas Instruments passed over Chang for CEO in the early 1980s. So, at the invitation of the Taiwanese government, Chang headed to Taiwan, where he established TSMC as a set of fabs only — making chips for other companies and no finished electronics.

This formidable collaboration between Taiwan and the democratic world suggests that rumours of globalism’s demise are greatly exaggerated. As Chip War makes clear, the clash of resounding arms between autocracy and democracy is powered by silicon chips. In this clash, Taiwan is currently the epicentre of technology, global economics and China’s high-stakes rivalry with the West. If any book can make general audiences grok the silicon age — and finally recognise how it rivals the atomic age — Chip War is it. And holy moly, it’s good to read a book about tech that’s not about software. Silicon chips are the substrate of digitisation. Trying to understand the digital world by studying only Facebook or Google is like trying to understand architecture by studying only frescoes.


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