As a child, growing up in the India of the 1990s, “chip” commonly meant crispy, paper-thin slices of potatoes fried and salted to perfection. The Intel microprocessors, hiding unassumingly in unwieldy personal computers back then, came nowhere close to potatoes in the latter’s popularity as “chips.”
Fast forward to current times, semiconductor chips are the new oil that the world can go to war over.
With the worldwide shortage of chips, aggravated by the pandemic, global tensions are palpable both internally — with countries adopting plans to become self-sufficient in terms of chip production — and internationally with evolving relations between world superpowers.
Beyond economics and international relations, the chip is simultaneously defining the current-day human physically, mentally and spatially with the evolution toward a post-digital age of haptic gloves, neural implants and the metaverse.
So, the question is, how do chips define the intra-pandemic world?
Economic repercussions and international relations
Most of what constitutes our current-day material world, namely data centers, computers, aircrafts, electronic vehicles, smartphones, automobiles and missiles, etc., relies on semiconductor chips.
These tiny circuit boards are so crucial to our economies and daily lives that a shortage of chips can impact the simple act of purchasing a car or a computer globally. With the surge in demand for electronic devices owing to social distancing, the race toward chip manufacturing and design can determine both economic development as well as the political leverage one country holds over others in the world.
Take for instance the effect of global chip shortage on automobile giants like Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volkswagen that limited vehicle production, shut down factories and laid off employees during 2020-2021, owing to unavailability of chips. Furthermore, different sections of the consumer electronics industry, including the smartphone manufacturing companies, have also been affected by the chip supply disruption.
Concurrently, global chip shortage has also come to define the international relations between world powers. In its next five-year plan, China has committed to make chip production its chief priority. Following U.S. sanctions on Chinese chip giants like SMIC and Huawei, owing to national security concerns, SMIC and Huawei have partnered to build a new semiconductor manufacturing plant in China.
Meanwhile, many have attributed the evolving tensions between the U.S. and China to the reliance of both superpowers on Taiwan, which is home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) — a company credited with producing not only the most advanced chips globally, but also being the leading chip manufacturer in the world. At a larger level, the burgeoning demand for chips can therefore lead to substantial change in international relations between countries. It can also lead a country to move ahead in the race to be the global superpower.
On the other hand, at a national level, dependence on chips can affect the internal policies and economic health of a country. It is owing to the growing dependence on chips, advances in technology, and unpredictable international relations, that many multinational technology companies are trying to become more independent in terms of chip design.
Custom chips and the metaverse
There is a surge in demand for designing custom-made chips by companies like Tesla, Meta, Apple and others. Apple’s M1 processor, Tesla’s Dojo chip and Baidu’s Kunlun 2 are all some results of this need for customization and control over chip functions and integration.
Additionally, with the pandemic-affected society trudging toward the hope of a metaverse, and the advances in AI, chips will come to reshape core human values and social tendencies.
Take for instance our love for art or a common human inclination to own property. These, as many other core demands and values, have already found a replication/reconstruction in the metaverse through reproducible digital art (NFT) or real estate investments in virtual spaces like Decentraland or Snoopverse.
With Microsoft’s possible presence in the metaverse, NVIDIA’s Omniverse, Intel’s commitment “to plumbing the internet of tomorrow,” basic human interactions, powered by some of these companies in the metaverse, will find their fuel in chips. But there is more to it because beyond the realm of socio-economic interactions, chips will also dispense the power to tap into the human mind.
Chip implants: The human cyborg
In the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, the editor summarizes the thoughts of the then-Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush, in the following words: “For years inventions have extended man’s physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. Trip hammers that multiply the fists, microscopes that sharpen the eye … are new results, but not the end results.”
While the human mind has been open to manipulation throughout history, and continues to be manipulated via social media, Bush’s argument about the lack of inventions to increase the powers of the mind still holds true. However, one may contend that Elon Musk’s brain-implant startup Neuralink promises a pathway into allowing the mind to take tangible control of physical actions through implanted microchips, and thereby ushers in a way to contribute to the powers of the mind in an oblique way.
Implanted chips in brains could therefore allow the mind to initiate interactive actions by the simple act of thinking about it. While this is still far away from Bush’s contention of the absence of inventions that can “duplicate … [the creative agility of] mental process[es] artificially,” it could be considered a humble beginning.
Unlike the mind, the human body has received most scientific attention, owing to which chips have already found their way into the hands of thousands of people in Sweden who have opted for scannable subdermal chip implants in their bodies to ease the hassles of carrying around personal identification documents. Chips have thereby proven to sustain and hasten the proliferation of human cyborgs, as man and machine increasingly integrate.
We have come a long way from the naivete of potato chips to our daily reliance on semiconductor chips. As I look back at the unassuming microprocessors, hiding in the folds of the cumbrous PCs of the 1990s, I don’t visualize mechanical circuit boards anymore — but what I see instead is a mechanical substitute for food that nourishes not only machines but also humans and human societies at large.
Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland.