The Uncertain Future of Microchips
Advances in technology over the past century have been staggering. It took just 66 years to progress from launching the first airplane to landing on the moon. Life-changing new smart gadgets, revolutions in communication and miraculous medicines now come so thick and fast that we almost take them for granted.
So what has driven this incredible rate of innovation? It all comes down to a tiny piece of technology: the transistor.
Transistors are basically like switches which amplify electric currents when closed, and shut the current off when open. That may not sound all that impressive, but put four of these transistors together and you can build a portable radio. Put 17,000 together and you can build the Apollo Guidance Computer. Put several billion of them together and you get a modern smartphone chip.
Technological progress has been fuelled by our ability to make these transistors smaller and smaller, enabling us to fit ever-increasing numbers of them onto microchips.
But there is a limit to just how small we can make these transistors, and we may be close to reaching it. At the same time, increased demand and geopolitical factors are leading to a global shortage in semiconductors.
What might this mean for human progress and our daily lives?