Chip War: The Battle Over Trade, Immigrants And Semiconductors

With Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History at The Fletcher School

Chip War, a new book by Chris Miller, explains the history of semiconductors and why they are vital to consumers, nations and the global economy. The book details why the ability to attract and retain talent will be crucial. “The combination of new visa and travel restrictions plus China’s effort to retain more researchers at home may neutralize America’s historical skill at stripping geopolitical rivals of their smartest minds,” writes Miller. He notes, “Immigrants have played a fundamental role in building the U.S. chip industry since its earliest days.”

To better understand the book and its implications, I interviewed Miller, who responded in writing, on a range of topics, including China, Russia and the role of immigrants in semiconductors past and present. Chris Miller is an associate professor of international history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of several books, including Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology.

Stuart Anderson: Why have semiconductors become vital to a nation’s economy?

Chris Miller: Semiconductors are crucial in all types of devices. It isn’t only computers and smartphones that have chips inside. Cars rely on dozens or, in some cases hundreds, of semiconductors. Microwaves, dishwashers, coffee makers—we rely on semiconductors for almost every aspect of our lives.

Anderson: Can you discuss the role immigrants have played in developing semiconductors and their continued importance for the U.S. semiconductor industry today, including the concern you expressed in your book about U.S. immigration restrictions and declines in international students?

Miller: The chip industry relies on accessing the world’s best talent. Immigrants have played a fundamental role in building the U.S. chip industry since its earliest days. Fairchild Semiconductor, the California company that led the commercialization of the chip industry, had two immigrants among its eight founders. Morris Chang, who made Texas Instruments into a cutting-edge semiconductor producer in the 1960s and 1970s, was an immigrant from China. Immigrants from Egypt and Korea played key roles in devising the technology underlying most of the chips we use today.

Anderson: What role did Andy Grove play in the development of semiconductors in America?

Miller: Andy Grove arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s, a refugee from Communist Hungary. After completing a Ph.D., he was hired by Fairchild Semiconductor and then went on to be an early employee at Intel right after it was founded. He eventually rose to the position of CEO, leading the company through the 1980s and setting it on course to dominate the business of providing chips for PCs and to become the world’s biggest semiconductor firm during much of the 1990s and 2000s.

Anderson: Who is Andrew Viterbi and why is he important?

Miller: Viterbi devised some of the theories that made cellular communications possible. The challenge with cell phones is transmitting lots of data through the air via radio waves. There’s a limited amount of radio wave spectrum, so information has to be transmitted in a complex manner. Viterbi provided the initial road map for how to do so. His ideas led to the rise of Qualcomm, one of America’s biggest chip firms, which plays a key role in producing chips for mobile phones.

Anderson: What role did Morris Chang play in semiconductors in the U.S. as an immigrant and later in his career in Taiwan?

Miller: Morris Chang played a fundamental role in building the world’s chip industry. In the U.S., while working at Texas Instruments in the 1950s through 1980s, he was known for his seemingly magical ability to improve manufacturing processes and make it possible to produce ever more advanced chips. In the mid-1980s, Texas Instruments passed him over for the job of CEO in what was one of the greatest business errors of the 20th century. He decided to start a new company, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which today is one of the world’s most valuable companies and the largest producer of processor chips.

Anderson: You are also an expert on Russia and detail a fascinating history of how the Soviet strategy of stealing a semiconductor and copying it backfired. Looking at events today, can you describe how preventing Russia from importing semiconductors affects the Russian military and the future of the Russian economy?

Miller: The Russian government today is deeply reliant on imported semiconductors for its military and its economy. Russian military systems captured in Ukraine have been discovered to be full of Western semiconductors in their guidance computers. Now that Russia’s access to many of these chips has been cut off, Russia must smuggle them in from abroad. This is possible on some occasions, though Russian media has reported that the share of defective chips Russia receives has increased dramatically and that delays have slowed defense production.

Anderson: China features prominently in the book. Do you have any thoughts on the recent Biden administration export controls aimed at preventing China from making advanced chips?

Miller: The Biden administration wants to slow China’s progress in advanced computing and artificial intelligence, with the aim of guaranteeing that the U.S. military retains its technological edge. To do so, it is preventing China from accessing the chips that advanced AI requires, which are mostly designed in the U.S. and manufactured in Taiwan. China will find it very difficult to evade these rules, and its computing capabilities will degrade relative to U.S. capabilities as a result.

Anderson: A recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded, “Internationally, the United States needs to find new and better ways to encourage scientists, engineers, and their families to come to this country to work and live.” Do you agree with that conclusion?

Miller: Yes, attracting talented scientists and engineers has been crucial to U.S. technological capabilities in the past. It is the easiest step the U.S. could take to reinforce its position at the center of the world’s technology development ecosystem.

This interview was republished from Forbes.

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