Japan, Taiwan and China: a democratic lesson from chips | Technology
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On May 30, Wenling Chen, chief economist at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, made a speech in an online forum warning about the global techno-political situation: “If the United States and the West impose devastating sanctions on China, as have done with Russia, we must take Taiwan back.” And he went on: “Especially when we talk about production and supply chains, we must seize corporations that rightfully belong to China, like TSMC,” referring to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the most powerful chipmaker on the planet. TSMC produces 90% of the “chips super advanced” including the chips in Apple iPhones.
We begin a new chapter in a long story. Semiconductor physics and nuclear physics, East-West relations, democracy, and militarism have been intertwined since the atomic bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. With the American occupation, Japan’s independence ends abruptly in the postwar period, but the dialogue between Japanese and American physics tightens. Hideki Yukawa is awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1949. With Yukawa’s Nobel Prize, Japan recalls its ability to transform itself using science and is reborn as a modern, pacifist country. After the miracle of the recovery of its economy, the oil crisis of 1973 pushes Japan to increase its productivity by taking advantage of the convergence of two branches of science: computing and semiconductor physics.
In the USA, John von Neumann led the manufacture of the first digital computer, in a project that made two technologies that have dominated geopolitics until today a reality: on the one hand, he gave us the possibilities of digital computing, and on the other, his computer used to create the most destructive power in history, the thermonuclear bomb. The most powerful thermonuclear bomb, Tsaris in the hands of Putin.
Von Neumann’s computer was based on vacuum tubes, was slow and impractical. The solution comes from Japan, Leo Esaki invents the semiconductor diode in 1958 working for Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (now Sony). Physics shows that the components that handle bits of information can be fabricated into microscopic structures using semiconductors. That’s where the miniaturization race begins and the chips are born, the smaller the structures, the more powerful the chips.
At the end of the 1980s, Japan overtook the US, coming to dominate 50% of the world market for semiconductors. Japanese scientists and engineers used these technologies to democratize their use and transform reality: the pocket calculator, the CD player, karaoke, modern record players, the Walkman, laptops, video games, synthesizers, video cameras. Japan achieves, through the creativity of its technological manufacture, what it had not achieved with its imperialist and militaristic ambition: to consolidate itself as a global power, to speak with the West as equals.
Dependence on Japanese technology created anxiety in the US and a bitter trade conflict, after which Japan eventually ceded its chip dominance to Korea and Taiwan. TSMC was formed in 1987 led by the legendary Morris Chang. Chang’s revolutionary idea (which is the origin of the current situation) was to separate manufacturing and design. TSMC concentrates on making the chips for the companies that design and order them. Its superiority is based on the ability to fabricate structures on the nanometric scale. Along with Samsung, TSMC is the only company capable of producing 5-nanometer structures on its chips (the size of a silicon atom is 0.21 nanometers, so we’re talking about structures with dimensions of 24 atoms!).
Its 3-nanometer processors will go into production in the second half of 2022. The chips became the “silicon shield” against a possible Chinese invasion, but the war in Ukraine has weakened the strategy. Chips are not only used in mobile phones and computers, but also in 5G technology and artificial intelligence. The design and manufacture of drugs, vaccines, and cars depend on TSMC. The danger of catastrophe caused by a stoppage of chip production in Taiwan has led the EU, US and Japan to plan large investments to restart their manufacturing. China will continue to try to create its own chips.
For me this story carries a more important lesson, it shows that manufacturing, science and democracy are linked in a profound way. Countries that manufacture state-of-the-art technologies in democracy have to create the space for workers and citizens to participate in modernity, making science and technology their own. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do not have perfect societies, but they rank among the top 20 most democratic countries in the world on the 2021 Democratic Index. In a world dominated by science, can one country let others make the technologies that will define the future and retain your independence? Is it possible to preserve a democracy in a country without manufacturing its own technology? Let’s get ready fast, because the most interesting starts now, when TSMC reaches 2 nanometers there will be almost no room to continue shrinking.
Some of us think that the end of chip miniaturization will push us to rescue forms of computing that were marginalized by the success of digital computers. The most avant-garde systems (neuromorphic computers, for example, which will become a reality long before quantum ones) abandon the digital to concentrate on the analogical (from the Greek ana- upwards, against, and -logos, word, reason). The domain of digital programming will come to an end when the new analog computers begin to use an intelligence that does not belong to human rationality, but to the complexity and physics of Nature.
We are at the gates of the great analog transformation of artificial intelligence. The situation invites us to learn the lessons of the past, to imagine futures where diversity, participation and the democratic transformation of reality taking advantage of science play a central role that allows us to face the future with hope and above all with creativity.
Sonia Contera is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, after having developed her scientific career in Japan, China, Germany and Russia, among other countries. She is an expert in nanotechnology and author of the book Nano comes to life.
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