WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
21 February 2023
Dear 50 International,
In 1589 Sir Walter Raleigh planted potato seeds in Cork before gifting the potato to Queen Elizabeth I as a curiosity; vegetables were considered food for the poor. However, between 1700 and 1900, this ‘poor food’ enabled 25% of the population growth, urbanisation and, thus industrialisation, of the Old World. With its ease of cultivation (on even marginal land), storage and transportation this high-calorific food rich in Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C was transformative. Today the potato is the world’s fourth-largest food source.
Evolving from a basic staple to a cheap convenience food the potato was cut or “chipped” into lengths and fried. In 1920s London, crisps came in bags with a blue paper twisted ‘pinch of salt’ for taste. Crisps likely originated in America colloquially as chips.
Today’s chips are semiconductors of silicon or germanium and equally transformative. Chips are in virtually everything; an average car now contains 4,000 plus! Chips are cardinal for today’s global civilisation to function. Crucially, they enable the analytics and innovation needed to address the climate, food, water and demographic problems we face. In 2022, some 1.15 trillion semiconductors were shipped. By 2027 annual semiconductor value is projected at $726.73 billion.
Whilst the potato developed genetically, it remains growable almost everywhere. However, chips have become ever more complex and increasingly challenging in their production requiring microengineering with zero vibration and complete air purity. In 2022, Taiwan made 65% of the world's semiconductors (China produced >5% and the U.S. broadly 10%) and almost 90% of the advanced chips. The advanced chip is key, with the 3 nanometer (nm) chip now being produced, (human hair is 80,000+ nm wide and an atom of gold some third of a nano). Russia has limited production at the slow 90 nm.
TSMC in Taiwan and Samsung in Korea are world leaders in chips, but due to China’s sabre rattling, geographic diversification has become crucial. Interestingly, in 2022 TSMC made one of the largest ever investments into America with $40bn on an Arizona site to be its most advanced chip manufacturing plant. TSMC now researches 2 nm!
China has fallen badly behind in nano bandwidth and ability (in 2022 Russia reported a 40% failure rate in Chinese chips). Considerable internal problems and distractions with sovereignty claims on Taiwan is a mutually assured destruction game as war will destroy chip manufacture.
Where once the world gambled on potato dependency (the Potato Famine showed the risk) we now gamble on semiconductor chip dependency.
On gaming tables, bets are irretrievable when chips are placed. Thus in difficult situations, true friends stand by us ‘when the chips are down’; we will need them as Chip manufacture diversification is cardinal! No pinches of salt will make the threat more palatable and we must guard this resource jealously. Our dependency on chip-driven technology is not unlike that on the potato. Without it, we too will starve.
All the Best