[May 9, 2023 ] – When the US last year announced new export rules on advanced chips, the role of semiconductors in modern foreign affairs reached a new zenith. The chips have assumed the stature of oil in today’s geopolitics and depriving China of the chips now seems a strategic objective.
Unease has only grown with the appearance of the ChatGPT AI Large Language Model, which is a chip-hungry, power-guzzling presence ready to take over the world, to hear networks of experts and Cassandras tell it. Just as unsettling are Chinese maneuvers around Taiwan, a crucial center of global chip production.
Such activity formed a partial backdrop for the MIT Technology Review’s recent Future Compute 2023 conference at the Cambridge, Mass. Campus. Semiconductor issues were probed in a Q&A session featuring Chris Miller, Tufts University lecturer and author.
Miller said the semiconductor has taken on an outsized role in strategizing on China, and that the focus now is both on economics and defense.
”China spends as much money importing chips each year as importing oil,” he said. “You can’t understand the structure of the world economy without putting semiconductors at the center of your analysis.”
This is increasingly true for economic issues, Miller continued. Semiconductors that drive computers and embedded systems are top of mind when defense ministries and intelligence agencies think about future procurements.
“What they know is that over the past half century one of the key forces that’s transformed the way militaries fight has been computing power,” according to Miller, who traced the developments leading to the present predicament in “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” a recent noteworthy [Financial Times Book of the Year 2022] look at semiconductor industry history and its ever-shifting role in the larger body politic.
“Chip War” is described by a New York Times reviewer as something of a nonfiction thriller in which ‘pocket-protector men’ at Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel tamed the raw transistor, fashioned the Integrated Circuit, outdid the Soviet Union, and left a war weary Europe in the dust as they formed what’s now Silicon Valley. Many of those developments bear review as governments’ and companies’ take on present complexities.
The complexities include more seemingly modest products than high-end processors, Miller indicated. Simpler chips that complement the hot processers grow in importance as well.
“The entire electronics supply chain is actually beginning to shift. It’s not only at the chip level, it’s also electronics assembly and simpler components,” Miller said, adding that a reduction in China’s level of server assembly has led to a major increase in Mexico’s market share in that field.
The also point emergence of new market dynamics as large companies take on design of their own chips, which could be spurred for a wider range of companies as US Chips Act R&D funding addresses the need for less expensive chip design processes.
A qubit for your thoughts
Infant quantum computing looms as an adjacent technology where geopolitical ambitions may play out.
China, the US the EU, and countries such as Australia, Singapore, and Canada now devote research monies to pursue such quantum efforts. They stir this new ground at the same time they test the limits of Moore’s Law – the perceived dead end for further large-scale silicon chip integration, which Tuft’s Miller cites as a fundamental challenge facing the chip industry.
However, quantum technology is still-raw technology – the quantum researchers on the main are still found toiling at the qubit level with lab rigs and signal scopes – that is, the quantum equivalent of the lone transistor work that preceded development of the Integrated Circuit.
A high-point of the Future Compute 2023 agenda for me was a visit to MIT’s Engineering Quantum Systems Group’s labs. Smart people are working hard on this frontier technology. And, with notable exceptions, there is knowledge sharing going on.
But, in a conference panel on quantum at the event, the impression emerged that quantum computing needed a large-scale working version of a quantum computer before the international competition for quantum computing would reach a less-sanguine stage akin to that the advanced CPU, GPU, NPU and network processing chips now experience.
For his part, at Future Compute, Chris Miller hesitated somewhat in responding to an audience question on quantum computing.
“I struggle to say anything that intelligent on quantum computing, both because I’m really not an expert in computing, but also because there’s a chip industry that I can study and I know how to talk about, whereas quantum computing is still a prospective industry,” he said. “We all hope it will materialize but it hasn’t materialized in a practical form.”
Global chip wars must be viewed in the context of a real war underway in Ukraine. It has exposed the pivotal role of new technology in the exercise of war, as well as the vulnerability of the supply chains that feed modern commerce. It’s also pushed diplomacy to the sidelines, narrowing the opportunity for maneuver in the semiconductor straits.