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Microchips and the Puzzle of Human Progress - Part Two

Welcome to the second part of my article on microchips. Part one covered the invention of the transistor and a brief history of the microchip.

Now, let’s bring things into the present with a look at how and where microchips are made today, their place in modern geopolitics and what might happen when we finally reach the limit of Moore’s Law.

The most complex engineering process ever invented

As microchips have got ever-smaller, the machines required to manufacture them have got larger and more complex.

The photolithography technique developed by Jay Lathrop and the integrated circuit devised by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce provided the fundamentals for what is now the most complex engineering process ever invented.

Today, advanced chips are manufactured using extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV). Here author Chris Miller explains how this works:

“A ball of tin falls at a rate of several hundred miles an hour through a vacuum and measures around 30 millionths of a meter in diameter. It is pulverized by two shots from one of the most powerful lasers ever deployed in a commercial device and explodes into a plasma measuring several times hotter than the surface of the sun — several hundred thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This plasma emits EUV light at exactly the right wavelength of 13.5 nanometers, which is then collected via a series of about a dozen mirrors, which themselves are the flattest mirrors humans have ever produced. The mirrors reflect the light at just the right angle so that it hits the silicon wafer and carves the circuits on the chips that make your iPhone possible.”

Dutch company ASML is the only firm in the world to have mastered this technique, and its latest EUV device is said to be the most expensive mass-produced machine in history.

ASML doesn’t make chips – its specialism is producing the machines that manufacture them, which it sells to the major chipmakers. This brings us to the all-important issue of where chips are made.

The chip choke

Silicon Valley may be where microchips were invented but it’s no longer where most of them are manufactured. This isn’t anything new. The process of outsourcing chip manufacture to East Asia started back in the early 1960s as a way for US firms to drive down costs; workers in other parts of the world were less expensive than those at home.

This approach was also driven by US foreign policy interests. Countries including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea all felt the economic benefit of driving forward this exciting new technology, while the US bound them closer to its own interests amid the Cold War and, more recently, tensions with China.

While manufacture is now an international affair, only a very small number of firms are at the forefront. Getting a top-of-the-range chip into production today would be virtually impossible without ASML’s machinery and the manufacturing expertise of either the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), South Korea’s Samsung or the US’s Intel. The rate of innovation in chip technology is so rapid that even China has been unable to match, let alone break, the monopoly these companies have on driving forward Moore’s Law.

In 2020, China spent more money importing microchips than it did importing oil. The US and its allies, concerned about China’s intentions towards Taiwan, were able to exploit this dependency last October when they announced a ban on microchip exports, freezing China out of cutting-edge chip technology.

Some fear this could provoke China into seizing Taiwan, where over 60% of the world’s semiconductors are produced, including 90% of the most advanced chips. This would have huge repercussions for the global supply chain.

So what can be done to increase the supply of advanced microchips? One answer is to unlock the ‘chip choke’ which makes the world so dependent on a very small number of companies and countries.

In the summer of 2022, the United States Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which included $52 billion of federal funding to build new factories and expand education for scientists and engineers in the US. Separately, Intel this month announced that it was looking beyond East Asia, with plans for a new $25 billion chip factory in Israel.

Initiatives like these may help to strengthen the supply chain in the long-term, but neither is likely to provide a quick fix.

A cartoon of a queue outside "Microchip World" with fairground rides in the background.

The end of progress?

“It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.” – Gordon Moore.

In an interview with Computerworld magazine in 2005, Gordon Moore predicted that Moore’s Law would hit a fundamental barrier within 20 years: how do you miniaturise a transistor once it gets down to the size of an atom?

Some believe that the era of Moore’s Law has already passed. Last year, Jensen Huang, CEO and co-founder of Nvidia, announced to investors that: “The method of using brute force transistors and the advances of Moore’s Law has largely run its course.”

Nvidia is at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence computing. It believes that future increases in processing power are now more likely to come from getting specialised chips to handle specific computing tasks in a way which increases speed and efficiency – a concept called accelerated computing.

There are many betting on them being right – Nvidia has recently overtaken Intel as one of the world’s most valuable tech companies.

However, others believe that reports of the demise of Moore’s Law have been greatly exaggerated. Intel is investing in new lithography techniques which it believes will allow them to squeeze one trillion transistors onto a chip by the end of this decade.

But, whether it happens in the 2020s or later, the one certainty of exponential growth is that it cannot continue forever.

Ultimately, for most of us, our fascination with Moore’s Law has never really been about transistor density but about our expectations of progress.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the rapid rate of technological progress in our lifetimes has fast overtaken our sense of what we want to do with it:

“Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoe to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going.”

For 60 years, Moore’s Law has been the biggest driver of technological progress humanity has seen. With this era approaching its end, perhaps it is time to reconsider how we define progress. After all, the technology we develop is less important than the purpose we put it to. And when it comes to maximising the potential of the transistor-driven superpowers we’ve developed following the breakthrough at Bell Labs in 1948, we may have only just scratched the surface.

Recommended links and further reading

  • Cold War 2.0 Will Be a Race for Semiconductors, Not Arms (The Observer) John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, writes that Taiwan’s huge silicon foundry is set to become the centre of the geopolitical conflict between the US and China.

  • Gordon Moore died earlier this year. His obituary in the New York Times tells the fascinating story of how this ‘accidental entrepreneur’ became ‘one of the boldest and most creative technicians of the hi-tech age’.


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