Thanks to my good friend Rohit Rajendran in Coimbatore who sends me, for the most part, quality and thoughtful stuff to and ensures that I don’t stagnate intellectually, I came across the article on the end of Moore’s law in MIT Technology Review.
From a public policy perspective, the last two paragraphs (penultimate two, to be precise) caught my attention:
In 2018, Fuchs and her CMU colleagues Hassan Khan and David Hounshell wrote a paper tracing the history of Moore’s Law and identifying the changes behind today’s lack of the industry and government collaboration that fostered so much progress in earlier decades. They argued that “the splintering of the technology trajectories and the short-term private profitability of many of these new splinters” means we need to greatly boost public investment in finding the next great computer technologies.
If economists are right, and much of the growth in the 1990s and early 2000s was a result of microchips—and if, as some suggest, the sluggish productivity growth that began in the mid-2000s reflects the slowdown in computational progress—then, says Thompson, “it follows you should invest enormous amounts of money to find the successor technology. We’re not doing it. And it’s a public policy failure.”
Clearly, technological progress cannot be taken for granted, if entirely left to the ingenuity and incentives of the private sector as is widely, naively and mistakenly assumed. It is the same with medicines too.
Public policy has to play a big role and that is the lesson that policymakers in developing countries have to internalise. They cannot and should not be taken in by the rhetoric of naive champions of the so-called ‘market economy’ and ‘private sector’.
Now, whether the realisation of the Moore’s law was indeed a societal good thing or not is something that can never be conclusively answered. Many would think that I must be joking to even pose the question. But, if one evaluated the progress of technology and its impact on all of us – personal, social, economic and environmental – then judgements have to become a lot more nuanced. It is not a ‘open and shut’ case in favour of technological progress as many would like to believe.
This is the broader point I make in my recent column for Mint on Tuesday. Readers should peruse some of the reference I cite in that column, especially the interview of the professor who studies the Amish. Their adoption of new technologies after assessing its impact on culture deserves serious consideration and emulation.
Lastly, I have to mention my favourite. As I was reading ‘The Captured Economy’, I came across this:
William Shockley moved to northern California to take care of his ailing mother and thereby set in motion a train of events that would result in Silicon Valley),….
This is how stuff happens. I am a sucker for the law of unintended consequences. So, I made a mental note to explore this line further.
This is what David Leonhardt wrote in April 2008 for New York Times:
The textbook example is Silicon Valley. In 1955, the physicist William Shockley set up a semiconductor laboratory in Mountain View, partly to be near his mother in Palo Alto. Some employees of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory later left the company to found Fairchild Semiconductor, and Fairchild alumni in turn founded Intel. In 1980, an Intel salesman named John Doerr quit to become a technology investor, and he helped provide seed money for Netscape, Sun Microsystems and Google, among other companies. [Link]
This is what Scott Rosenberg wrote for ‘Wired.com’ in July 2017:
Shockley was the founding father of Silicon Valley. …. .
…After leading the Nobel-winning team at Bell Labs that invented the transistor, Shockley gathered a platoon of young engineering hotshots and decamped for Palo Alto, CA, where he’d spent part of his youth and his mother still resided. There, in 1956, he launched his own company, Shockley Semiconductor—and, as the saying goes, “put the silicon in Silicon Valley.” Although the region already harbored tech innovators like Hewlett-Packard and research juggernauts like Stanford University, Shockley is why the Valley today grows chips instead of apricots.
But Shockley Semiconductor failed miserably, largely because its founder was the tech industry’s original bad boss. Shockley was an archetypal mis-manager, driving his employees so crazy that they quit en masse after just one year and started their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. That company became the root of the tech industry’s corporate family tree and begat Intel, Kleiner Perkins, and other iconic firms.
The article goes on to catalogue the personal weaknesses of William Shockley that have largely overshadowed his visionary action(s). That too is par for the course. Technical genius and intellectual brilliance do not guarantee wholesome character.
I am not focusing on that aspect, in this blog post. Clearly, Shockley’s desire to be close to his mother was the seed for the Silicon Valley and the rest is history.
By definition, we cannot engineer serendipitous outcomes. They happen. Nor is it correct to expect them to happen and do nothing. As they say, ‘Eureka’ moments come to the prepared and the perspiring mind. We have to keep plugging away. If you are in the zone and focusing on the problems, the solutions may come from a source that you least expect to the source. But, even that is because you have been ‘searching’. Our duty is (Nishkaamya) karma….
Must remind us of some famous Hindu philosophical text…..