"Chip War" by Chris Miller

Review by Borodutch

If I had read this book before pursuing comp-sci, I'd probably become an electrical engineer inventing new generations of chips. Unfortunately, "Chip War" came out only this year and not a decade earlier, partially because it describes the events that happened over the last ten years.

In this relatively short yet extremely fast-paced book, Chris Miller takes us on a journey across a few decades, observing how the field of integrated circuits and semiconductors got created, improved and became a question of national security for most countries. The chips aren't just about surfing neverending pictures of cats but are also of great importance for the military and strategic to the sovereignty of states.

The chips are the new oil. However, if oil reserves had been pre-distributed in the past, where to produce integrated circuits would have been purely a human decision. Materials for semiconductors aren't challenging to find: for instance, silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth. The trick is to produce integrated circuits small enough to be feasible in the modern world.

The process of "printing" minuscule integrated circuits uses special lithography machines. Only one company in the world produces lithography machines of high enough grade — ASML in the Netherlands. If this company goes belly up, so does the whole industry. If this bottleneck isn't scary enough, only one company is responsible for producing 55% of all chips and 90% of high-complexity ones — TSMC in Taiwan!

Now you know what's up with all these Chinese-US hurdles about Taiwan. "He who controls the spice controls the universe" isn't just a quote from Dune. Nowadays, it's the reality. But it isn't the spice — whoever controls the chips controls the Earth. Fortunately, the chip manufacturing process is so expensive and incredibly complicated that no one country can undertake to build the whole industry from the ground up.

Globalization of chip production is why even if China potentially occupies Taiwan for the sake of controlling TSMC, the machines will be billion-dollar microwave ovens within a few years without the Netherlands' support. The situation is reassuring: if no one country controls chip production ("the spice"), we should be safe to keep buying new mobile phones.

But let that sink in. No matter what electronic device you use, more likely that 90% of all the circuits came from one company. Apple? Samsung? Google? Lenovo? Intel? AMD? It doesn't matter — it's all TSMC.

Another good point from the book is that the semiconductor industry is rapidly improving. Even if you seized all the tech secrets from all the companies around the globe, in 1-2 years, you would again be behind.

The author provides one of the best summaries of what has happened with the semiconductor industry since its inception. It's a highly entertaining read. I would recommend you pick up this book right now to understand better what's going on inside the device you read these words from and some of the geopolitical decisions the world leaders have to take.