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Digital Economy Relies on Semiconductors

Semiconductor technology is at the heart of all modern digital economies. This observation has prompted governments all over the world to consider how to revitalise or expand their domestic ecosystems centred on semiconductor technologies.

Beyond direct effects on the economy and national security, semiconductor technology plays a critical role in enabling solutions to many societal challenges, including the digital transformation of healthcare, combating climate change, protecting the environment, expanding access to education and economic opportunity, and developing COVID-19 vaccines.

Semiconductor technology is a foundational technology that has transformed the way we work, the way we interact with one another, and the way we enjoy our lives.  And the future demand for semiconductors is insatiable.

– Professor H.S. Philip Wong of the School of Engineering at Stanford University

With his area of research in semiconductor technology, Prof Wong added that semiconductor technology is a constantly evolving and progressing technology that requires technological advancement to capture its value. Prof Wong explained that people cannot use cell phones made 20 years ago to access the internet, applications, or make a Zoom call today.

There is a constant need for research and development, as well as the translation of that research and development into actual manufacturable products. Semiconductors are a technology that must be constantly renewed, and the constant renewal aspect is critical when considering the semiconductor economy and ecosystem.

What is required nowadays are methods to accelerate global semiconductor technology advancement, which can be summed up in four simple ideas that should keep in mind when developing policies and plans, according to Prof Wong.

The first is to force the competition and marketplace of ideas; the second, look for leaders who are willing to take risks and make certain that accountability does not lead to risk aversion. The third is to underwrite some of the risks associated with technological development; and finally, the formidable barriers to commercialising new process technologies must be reduced.

One of the bottlenecks in commercialising new process technologies is translating laboratory innovations into manufacturable products, a process known as lab-to-fab translation. Lab refers to small-scale laboratories such as those found in universities, and fab refers to semiconductor manufacturing plants, also known as fabs or fabrication plants.

A typical computer chip today can have several billion transistors whereas a university laboratory can only make a device with a thousand transistors. Demonstrations on a scale substantially larger than what can be done in academic laboratories today would be required to persuade the industry to continue developing the university discovery.

Prof Wong furthered that the computer chips, also known as semiconductors, are what make up those computers, networking, and data storage devices. Twelve of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals rely on continuous advancements in semiconductor-based information and communication technology.

Every day, semiconductors fuel the internet, which is used by more than half of the world’s population. Filling the semiconductor talent pipeline is a unique function that institutions all over the world can play and with support from the government can go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Prof Wong considers the U.S. CHIPS Act and other related international laws to be significant. If the U.S. CHIPS Act is enacted, it is conceivable that other nations will enact laws that will strengthen their local or regional semiconductor capabilities. This would lead to encouraging other countries to develop semiconductor manufacturing plants on U.S. territory, such legislation is crucial and will attract manufacturing to the United States.

If the U.S. has a very strong and robust semiconductor manufacturing industry, this will assure that the U.S. will continue to have very strong R&D activities and that the U.S. will continue to be able to innovate and develop the next generation of technology.

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