Flea war, a new book by Chris Miller, explains the history of semiconductors and why they are vital to consumers, nations and the global economy. The book details why the ability to attract and retain talent will be crucial. “The combination of new visa and travel restrictions along with China’s push to retain more scholars at home could neutralize America’s historic ability to strip geopolitical rivals of their smartest minds,” writes Miller. He notes that “immigrants have played a fundamental role in building the American chip industry from its beginnings.”
To better understand the book and its implications, I interviewed Miller, who responded in writing, on a range of topics, including China, Russia, and the role of immigrants in semiconductors past and present. Chris Miller is associate professor of international history at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and author of several books, including Chip War: the fight for the most critical technology in the world.
Stuart Anderson: Why have semiconductors become vital to a country’s economy?
Chris Miller: Semiconductors are crucial in all types of devices. It’s not just computers and smartphones that contain chips. Cars rely on dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of semiconductors. Microwaves, dishwashers, coffee makers, we rely on semiconductors for almost every aspect of our lives.
Anderson: Can you discuss the role that immigrants played in the development of semiconductors and their continued importance to the American semiconductor industry today, including the concern you expressed in your book about restrictions to immigration to the United States and the decline in the number of international students?
Miller: The chip industry relies on access to the best talent in the world. Immigrants have played a fundamental role in building the American chip industry since its beginnings. Fairchild Semiconductor, the California company that led the commercialization of the chip industry, had two immigrants among its eight founders. Morris Chang, who made Texas Instruments a leading semiconductor producer in the 1960s and 1970s, was an immigrant from China. Immigrants from Egypt and Korea played a key role in designing the technology underlying many of the chips we use today.
Anderson: What role did Andy Grove play in the development of semiconductors in America?
Miller: Andy Grove came to the United States in the 1950s as a refugee from Communist Hungary. After completing a Ph.D., he was hired by Fairchild Semiconductor, then became one of Intel’s first employees right after its founding. He eventually rose to the position of CEO, leading the company through the 1980s and setting it on a path to dominate the PC chip supply business and become the largest semiconductor company in the world for a long time. part of the 1990s and 2000s.
Anderson: Who is Andrew Viterbi and why is he important?
Miller: Viterbi devised some of the theories that made cellular communications possible. The challenge with cell phones is transmitting a lot of data through the air via radio waves. There is a limited amount of radio wave spectrum, so information must be transmitted in complex ways. Viterbi provided the initial roadmap for how to proceed. His ideas led to the rise of Qualcomm, one of America’s largest chip companies, which plays a key role in the production of chips for mobile phones.
Anderson: What role did Morris Chang play in semiconductors in the United States as an immigrant and later in his career in Taiwan?
Miller: Morris Chang has played a fundamental role in building the global chip industry. In the United States, while working at Texas Instruments in the 1950s to 1980s, he was known for his seemingly magical ability to improve manufacturing processes and make ever more advanced chips possible. In the mid-1980s, Texas Instruments dropped him for the CEO job in what was one of the biggest business mistakes of the 20th century. He decided to start a new company, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which today is one of the most valuable companies in the world and the largest producer of processor chips.
Anderson: You are also a specialist in Russia and detail a fascinating story of how the Soviet strategy of stealing a semiconductor and copying it backfired. Looking at today’s events, can you describe how preventing Russia from importing semiconductors affects the Russian military and the future of the Russian economy?
Miller: The Russian government today is deeply dependent on imported semiconductors for its military and economy. Captured Russian military systems in Ukraine have been found to be brimming with Western semiconductors in their guidance computers. Now that Russia’s access to many of these chips has been cut off, Russia must smuggle them in from abroad. This is possible on some occasions, although Russian media have reported that the share of defective chips received by Russia has increased significantly and that delays have slowed down defense production.
Anderson: China features prominently in the book. Do you have any thoughts on the recent Biden administration export controls to prevent China from making advanced chips?
Miller: The Biden administration wants to slow China’s progress in advanced computing and artificial intelligence, in a bid to ensure the US military maintains its technological lead. It does this by blocking China from accessing the chips needed for advanced AI, which are mostly designed in the United States and made in Taiwan. China will find it very difficult to evade these rules and its computing capabilities will consequently degrade compared to American capabilities.
Anderson: A recent Report of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “Internationally, the United States must find new and better ways to encourage scientists, engineers, and their families to come to this country to work and live. Do you agree with this conclusion?
Miller: Yes, attracting talented scientists and engineers has been crucial to America’s technological capabilities in the past. This is the simplest step the United States could take to strengthen its position at the center of the global tech development ecosystem.