Chris Miller (2022)

Part history and part prediction, this is a book that takes a deep-dive into semiconductors both as a technology and as an agent of political and economic change.

The history of semiconductors is fascinating in itself: a rivalry between individuals and companies, each striving to improve the features of chips and the yields of their manufacturing processes. Chips are now so ubiquitous it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the first recognisable microprocessor debuted in 1971. But even before that the world was being changed, as electronics started to appear in consumer devices and – more critically – weapons systems, with the US Paveway laser-guided bomb revolutionalising precision munitions delivery. (The description of how this system works is a eye-opener in its simplicity.) The exponential growth in the speed, power, and capability of semicondictors has brought us the modern world.

But where Miller really shines is in taking this history and placing it in the context of grand strategy. Having a electronics industry incentivised the US (and NATO more generally) to invest in “smart” munitions, and therefore reduce the size of their armies while increasing their lethality – and the cost of using them. That decision made sense in the context of the Cold War, but now looks more shaky given the rise of a China that has a home-grown semiconductor and IT industry of rapidly increasing sophistication. Is this a cause for concern? Miller thinks so. But he also argues that the West has sufficient levers to retain control, not least because building the latest generations of semiconductors relies on a very few “choke” technologies, each essential to the process, each requiring as astonishing degree of know-how, and each monopolised by a single company. It is this that allows technological sanctions of the sort that the US has imposed to be so effective.

One can always imagine new techologies being developed entirely independently, or more innovative uses of older processes: there’s a lot one can do with older sensing and processing systems, for example, which are still almost unbelievably powerful in comparison to those of only a few years ago. So control of the techological frontier may not be enough to prevent hostilities breaking out.

5/5. Finished Sunday 25 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)