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YESTERDAY, COMPUTER VACUUM TUBES FAILED every couple days and the valley had yet to be named Silicon. Today in Part 2, we continued gleaning insights from John Lanchester’s “Putting the Silicon in Silicon Valley,” a review of Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology, in London Review of Books, March 16, 2023.

Today’s Chips. In our fast forward to 2023, silicon is etched on integrated-circuit microchips using extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV): John Lanchester shares Chris Miller’s description of the process which “involves a tiny ball of tin measuring thirty millionths of a metre moving through a vacuum at a speed of around two hundred miles per hour. The tin is then struck twice with a laser, the first pulse to warm it up, the second to blast it into a plasma with a temperature around half a million degrees, many times hotter than the surface of the sun. This process of blasting tin is then repeated fifty thousand times per second to produce EUV light in the quantities necessary to fabricate chips.”

Image from ASML.

Lanchester writes, “At the far limit of the technology is the Dutch company ASML, the only firm in the world to have mastered EUV lithography.”

A Nanometer Choke Point. Lanchester writes, “At this point, the technological sublime and geopolitics merge. Chips are ubiquitous, but top-end chips are not: they are the product of a highly concentrated manufacturing process in which a tiny number of companies constitute an impassable global choke point. If you can’t work with ASML, you can’t make a high-end chip. If you can’t get your top-of-the-range chip made by TSMC, Samsung or Intel, there’s no point designing it, because nobody else can manufacture it.”

China’s Challenge. Lanchester observes, “Everything is made in China… For high-end microchips, however the truism isn’t true. China has to import powerful microchips.”

Lanchester continues, “The numbers involved are substantial. For most of this century, China has spent more money on importing microchips than it has on importing oil…. Miller writes at the end of his book that, ‘absent a major change in US export restrictions, the People’s Liberation Army will acquire much of the computing power it needs by simply buying it from Silicon Valley.’ ”

The Biden Ban. Miller’s book was published in October 2022 and Lanchester brings matters up to date: “In October 2022, with little notice before and not nearly enough attention afterwards, … the Biden administration announced a ban on microchip exports to China, targeting both the US companies that deal with China, and any overseas companies that use US-made semiconductor technology…. Trump talked a good game about trade war with China, but when it comes to intentionally damaging China’s strategic interest, nothing he did was within a country mile of Biden’s new policy.”

Image by Florence Lo/Reuters from The New York TimesOctober 20, 2022.

Vacuum tube computing, the naming of Silicon Valley, and U.S. and China contesting chip supremacy are three of many nuggets in Miller’s book and Lanchester’s LRB review. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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