BOOK CORNER: “CHIP WAR: The fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” by Chris Miller.

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    Today’s title for review is “CHIP WAR: The fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” by Chris Miller. The book is vivaciously convincing. It’s about semiconductors and the coming US-China confrontation. Just like the semiconductor chips, Miller has packed a million history and information in this extraordinary book. The title is a remarkable, eye-popping work, a unique combination of economic and technological and strategic analysis … says PAUL KENNEDY, the bestselling author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.”

    As India takes baby steps into chip manufacturing, the history of this technology turns out to be a useful guide. A chip which is also called a semiconductor or an integrated circuit is a piece of silicon with tiny transistors carved into it that switch the 1s and the 0s. It is the material on which the entire digital world rests. It is what gives Silicon Valley its fancy name, and it is fuelling the biggest US-China confrontation.

    The book is about the evolution of the semiconductor business, and its role in the global economy and international politics. In the 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor (and later Intel) co-founder Gordon Moore famously predicted that computing power on chips would grow exponentially, doubling every two years. Moore’s law has exceeded all expectations. Sixty years ago, a cutting-edge chip had four transistors. It has about 11.8 billion now. Each 3D transistor is smaller than a coronavirus.

    Chips are the core of digital computing, which also makes them essential to the modern world, undergirding aeroplanes, weapons, appliances, drones and toys. The next generation of networking technology and AI (Artificial Intelligence) applications make them only more necessary. And so, the clutch of firms that design and produce chips are of immense strategic importance.

    All personal computing relies on DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) chips, which are made by two companies in Korea and one in the US. Further five firms—(American, Dutch and Japanese)—control the lighting process by which patterns are carved into silicon wafers. Fabricating and miniaturising chips are the greatest engineering challenge of our time, claims the book, for which Taiwan’s TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) is indispensable at the moment.

    As their uses proliferated, chips have become central to strategic interests. This evolution was not shaped just by corporations and consumers, but also by governments and militaries. While the Soviets had tried to keep up with the US advances in semiconductor technology, they were largely forced to rely on stealing and copying.

    In the 1980s, the Japanese juggernaut of high-quality low-cost DRAM chips posed competition to the US. Chips powered personal electronics, microwaves, camcorders and walkmans. It became clear that this technology was the crude oil of the 1980s—a resource whose control mattered to military supremacy.

    So, other Asian nations became contenders. As the US-Japan rivalry grew—South Korea and Taiwan too got into it, and so did China later. There have been missteps along the way. In the 90s, Japan failed to see the PC revolution coming, just as Intel later failed to spot the smartphone boom when it passed up on making chips for iPhones.

    Today, despite the fact that the US dissipated its lead in semiconductor fabrication and lithography, it still remains the design hub and maintains its chokehold on the technology, even as China puts billions of dollars and its best engineers into it. America’s unipolar moment and globalisation rhetoric have receded, and the tech wars have heated up as Xi Jinping crafts a new digital authoritarianism. Donald Trump called Huawei, ‘Spyway’, and slapped an export ban on China, grinding to a halt, its most advanced DRAM firm, SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation).

    The disruptions during the pandemic revealed just how critical, this chip supply chain is—if any of the steps in the interconnected production process is endangered, so is the world’s supply of computing power.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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