November 27, 2021
By Constantine S. Sirigos
PIRAEUS – Dr. Chrysostomos L Nikias, President Emeritus and Malcolm R Currie Chair in Technology and the Humanities at the University of Southern California, offered a fascinating presentation titled The Geopolitical Storm Surrounding Semiconductor Chips in the Library of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation on November 18.
Sponsored by The Council for International Relations – Greece, (CFIR-GR), the Department of Informatics and the Graduate Program in American Studies – Politics, Strategy and Economics of the University of Piraeus, Nikias offered a comprehensive overview of a heretofore little known topic that is not only dominating the news but is now impacting our daily lives and threatens the economic future of nations and the dominance of the West. As a Hellene – Nikias is from Cyprus – he also pointed out that the semiconductor industry offers opportunities to Greece.
“Who would have thought even 10 years ago,” Nikias began, “that semiconductor chips would become the world’s most important industry? As I am sure you are all aware, we are currently experiencing a worldwide shortage of semiconductor chips. It’s having a significant impact on the world’s economy. The most visible impact is probably in the auto industry. Factories have shut down because they cannot secure the chips needed to make many cars.”
He emphasized that now, “chips are the brains behind everything,” and that “the quest for faster, cheaper, more memory and lower power semiconductor chips with AI applications added on top continues unabated.”
And there are geopolitical implications. Nikias said, “a senior security expert in Washington DC recently stated, ‘whoever controls the design and production of these microchips … will set the course for the 21st century.’”
At the moment, 90% of chip technology and patents are still controlled by the United States – but China is ahead in other high tech sectors and is investing heavily to catch up and forge ahead where necessary.
Indeed, “Cold War style tensions have slowly developed in recent years between the United States and China,” Nikias said, complete with an ideological dimension: “The geopolitics of semiconductors are rooted in the starkly different systems of governance of the world’s two largest economies. To put it bluntly, it is democracy versus autocracy.”
But which system has the advantage in the technology race? Introducing the Q&A, Tziampiris addressed the question by juxtaposing the fact China is the rising power and is becoming ever more autocratic with the phenomenon that semiconductor technological progress has been quicker in the Asian, European, and North American democracies. Nikias acknowledged, “it is open democratic society and open free market economy that allowed the semiconductor industry to flourish.” On the other hand, he noted, autocratic China is demonstrating an ability to innovate, confounding experts, and stressed that with semiconductors, “China is 8-10 years behind – no more than that.”
Nikias ended on optimistic notes, however. “Democracies by their very nature” – with their parliamentary debates – “always delay reacting to a threat,” but when they do, they make great leaps. “Technology enabled by democracy is how we will flourish and ensure the freedom that we cherish,” he said.
A panel consisting of professors Athanasios Platias and Georgios Tsichrintzis of U of P offered commentary and participated in the Q&A afterwards with Aristotle Tziampiris of U of P and President of CFIR-G serving as Moderator.
One of the most fascinating parts of the discussion centered on the still hazy future of the semiconductor industry. Chip technology is rapidly approaching limits imposed by physics on the number of transistors – electronic switches – chips can contain; currently they hold 15 billion. “The question is, what comes next” technologically Nikias said. He noted that the revolutionary field of quantum computing is progressing, and while it appears that the United States is behind China at the moment, he suggested that could due to American secretiveness.
He cautioned, however, that quantum computing’s complete replacement of current computer technology is decades away, although its threat to cybersecurity in general and to financial institutions in particular is imminent and will require advances in security technology – a sector Greece can participate in – to counter.
Platias said, “what emerged from today’s talk is the important point that whoever controls technology – especially semiconductor chips – has a tremendous advantages enabling them to dominate the global economy as well as international politics.”
Tsichrintzis told The National Herald that, “America and the West must organize and cooperate to fight China’s attempt to establish a hegemony in the technology domain. It will have catastrophic consequences for the Western world.”
Another dimension of the discussion addressed the challenges and opportunities for Greece. Maria Virvou, head of the Department of Informatics of the U of P, said, “we need to retain our talent to work in Greece in these important technologies. We have we have very good students at the university,” a fact acknowledged by companies like Microsoft.
Nikias believes “Greece can establish for itself a place in the international semiconductor supply chain,” and that Greece is in a position to carve out niches for itself because “the software side of semi-conductor chip development is blossoming and the major companies need to recruit IT talent.” which Greece has in relative abundance. At point Platias noted that U of P’s Department of Informatics is currently producing that talent.”