The microchip turned 50 last Friday. Invented by Nobel laureate Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments on 12 September 1958, it revolutionized lives in ways that would have been unimaginable at the time of its invention. Robert Noyce, too, is credited with the invention, his breakthrough coming six months after Kilby’s.
Before the integrated circuit, computers were designed using vacuum tubes. The tubes were bulky, expensive, and would heat up, gobbling loads of electricity. The first microchip was about 50 times smaller and faster than vacuum tubes. Early chips, called Small Scale Integration (SSI), contained a few tens of transistors; by the 1980s Large Scale Integration (LSI) circuits carried thousands of transistors. Today’s circuits carry billions of them. Whereas only Nasa and defence departments bought the early integrated circuits, falling costs and exponentially rising computation speed took the technology to the masses. Our laptops, microwaves, pacemakers and so on are all powered by integrated circuits.
There are few on the face of the planet who remain untouched by the integrated circuit. National defence, including anti-missile technology, relies on microchips. So do the satellites that predict weather patterns, crucial knowledge for everyone from farmers to pilots. And Wikipedia, which is on the way to the monumental task of bringing all of humanity’s knowledge to billions of people for free, relies on computers and the Internet, which run on microchips.
But how did it all come about? No government planner could have ever guessed or planned the digital revolution. In 1958, people had no clue of what purposes the microchip could serve; its invention did not even make headlines. Like language, today’s complex integrated circuits are not the outcome of a single stroke of genius or a few great breakthroughs; on the contrary, it is a result of slow accumulation of innumerable minor innovations.
So, should we laud the microchip for all it gave us in the last five decades?
Well, maybe not singularly. Integrated circuits, like any other technology, don’t have any normative value in themselves; it is economic and political systems, not to mention social values, which give technology meaning with regards to our desired ends.
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