Book Club

Book Club: Chip War

It finally happened: Chip War by Chris Miller was unanimously loved by everyone in our book club. Now, full disclosure, most people in my book club are folks I have worked with in semiconductor development and design, systems development and design (relying on semiconductors) or electronic design automation tooling (used to design, layout, and manufacture semiconductors) over the years. So of course this book, which details decades of history about the world’s most critical resource semiconductors, is pandering to the base. Still, this book has important historical context for laypeople as well, specifically if you are curious about trade policy challenges between the United States and China.

This book contained the history of people and companies I’ve known, worked at or with, including drama and intrigues from early phases of the industry that I never knew. It was a page-turner, and one of the best books I have read recently. I wish this were required reading for anyone considering a career in Electrical Engineering as it explains how semiconductors came to play a critical role in modern life and how the U.S. became dominant in chip design and manufacturing (initially spurred by the space race and military systems development). It makes a strong point that America’s victory in the Cold War and its global military dominance stems from its ability to harness computing power more effectively than any other power. 

Personally I have always been shocked, having worked in so many parts of semi, how very much the world takes these incredible pieces of technology for granted. Every part of your day relies on semiconductors: your alarm clock, smart phone, toothbrush, lights, laptop, and every app providing you insights relies on semiconductors. This book really emphasizes how the military, economic, and geopolitical power bases of nearly every nation in the world are built on a foundation of semiconductors. It honestly made me so proud to be a part of this incredible industry, and still grateful everyday to the brilliant minds who invented it, many of whom are still with us.

The book spends a lot of time discussing how America designed and built the fastest chips and maintained its lead as a superpower for the majority of the industry’s history. It also speaks about how America’s role is far more nuanced today, still hosting some of the greatest fabless semiconductor companies, but having lost its lead in many of the industries it invented (DRAM, chip manufacturing, etc.) Frankly these American companies are some of the most multinational conglomerates imaginable for development and design, and through their dispersed supply chains across Taiwan, Korea, Europe, and China. It is interesting, and perhaps a bit hard as someone in the industry to imagine it from the lens of individual countries. When you work for a multinational company, you think about the benefits (around the clock support and development timelines, improved cost of labor, diverse approaches and thinking, etc.) and not from the author’s point of view, which is why it is important to read this book.

Since the book was written from a historical context with an eye to global trade and policy, it ends on a call to action about America’s military superiority and economic prosperity being tied to excellence in chip design and fabrication. Dr. Miller stresses how America has let key components of the chip-building process slip out of its grasp, contributing not only to a worldwide chip shortage (which in my opinion has more to do with a globally dispersed supply chain and would not have been ameliorated by U.S. control), but also a new Cold War with a superpower adversary that is committed to bridging the gap. I found that conclusion interesting since the author often cites America’s lack of policies supporting semiconductor development (at least in the early days) as leading to stronger companies than their nation-backed competitors. That being said the delta now is the sheer cost of R&D at the process nodes required for state-of-the-art logic chips. Either way, this book is a critical piece of history on an industry so often misunderstood, and provides important insights in an accessible manner on the current state of politics, economics, and technology. I highly recommend it.

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