Historian Chris Miller on the Amazing—and Dangerous—SemiconductorHistorians in the News
tags: computers, history of technology, Semiconductors
So you may have noticed at the beginning of the year the two themes are really dominating the show — China and A.I. And obviously, that’s not an accident. I’m not going to try to rank order what matters most in the world, but these are two good contenders for the top five, at least. When I imagine the history books getting written of our era, it is very hard for me not to imagine these being dominant themes.
And these stories connect. They connect in obvious ways. There’s a geopolitics of who controls A.I., a race between the U.S. and China to get the strongest and earliest A.I. capabilities. But they also connect in another, more tangible way. They are both stories driven by semiconductors and who controls them.
In the same way that you couldn’t understand geopolitics in the 20th century without understanding oil and other forms of energy — where it was, and who had it, and who needed it, and what they would do to get it — you can’t understand the major stories of the 21st century without understanding semiconductors. Whoever controls semiconductors controls the future.
And it turns out, for reasons I didn’t really understand until I read Chris Miller’s book “Chip War,” that semiconductors really can be controlled. So “Chip War,” which is just amazingly timed, given how deep it is, is a history of semiconductors as a technology, as an industry, and then it traces the way they have and are shaping geopolitics. It was a “Financial Times” Business Book of the Year in 2022. And having read it now, definitely going to be on my year-end list of the most important books I read in 2023. And there’s a lot more in the book than I’m able to cover in the show. I really do recommend reading this one. But I do think this show is one of the more important we’re going to do — and important for understanding a lot of the other shows we’re going to do — because this is getting at a material reality that is easy to miss but is going to shape so many of the big stories we’re living through in the coming years. As always, my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Miller, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
What timing on this book, man. I assume — when did you actually start it? Because I honestly cannot imagine a better moment for it to have come out.
Well, I started researching it around 2015, 2016, didn’t start writing until 2020, and finished writing early 2022 just as the chip shortage was reaching its peak.
So let’s talk a bit about why semiconductors end up mattering this much. You write that we rarely think about chips, yet they’ve created the modern world. Justify that for me.
Well, today, people like you and me can’t live our lives without touching hundreds or thousands of chips just going about the course of our daily lives. We think of chips as being in smartphones or being in P.C.s, but today, they’re in almost any device with an on/off switch. So a new car will have a thousand chips inside of it, your refrigerator, your microwave, your dishwasher. All of our devices are full of chips that do computing and do sensing, increasingly do communication. And so the modern economy just can’t function without lots and lots of chips.
I don’t know if this will be a hard question or an easy question for you, but like most people, and particularly before I read the book, I have only the hazy idea of what a semiconductor chip actually does. So you often describe it as providing the processing power of the modern world. What is it actually doing?
So a chip is a piece of silicon with a lot of tiny circuits carved into it. And these circuits are either completed or interrupted via a device called a transistor, which is a switch, basically, that turns them on or off. And when a circuit is on, it produces a 1. When it’s off, it produces a 0. And all of the 1’s and 0’s that undergird all of software, all of data storage, it’s just circuits turning on or off to produce the right digit.
And today, we have lots of digits we require because we store and process lots of data. And so advanced semiconductors today have millions or often billions of these tiny circuits etched into them that provide the 1’s and 0’s that modern computing requires.