Hardware is Back! Get On the Train!

By Shlomo Maital  

  In the film The Graduate,  McGuire takes  young Ben aside at the party and says he has one word of advice for him, just one word—and the word is “plastics” – meaning   a cheap, sterile  way of life, boring  and environmentally disastrous,  everything the values of the older generation represent.

   Today, McGuire might say, “software!”.  At my university, Technion, and elsewhere in the world, young people flock to computer science and software, dreaming of artificial intelligence and machine learning startups, and a fast unicorn exit.  The number of students enrolling in electrical engineering, to design VLSI — very large scale integraed circuits (hardware, e.g. microprocessors) — has not kept pace.

     Result:  As the world faces a shortage of chips, owing to pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions, underlying it all is a shortage of hardware engineers to design new and better ones.   So, McGuire – change your tune.  “Hardware!”   That’s what we need.

      We have been taught many bitter lessons by the pandemic.  One of them is the fragility of our global ecosystem.  It does not take much to badly disrupt it.  Take, for instance, the chip shortage that has has forced some car manufacturers to design chips and software out of their product – eliminating, e.g. dashboard screens.  This of course is no solution – to retrograde five years in design rather than progress.

     I think I would recommend that young people consider hardware as a future, rather than software.  The chip shortage will not go away tomorrow.  The six biggest Israeli tech companies each seek to hire hundreds of hardware engineers —   and the number of graduates is far far too small to meet the demand. 

     There is, however, some hope.  Writing in the New York Times, tech report Don Clark notes: 

“Even as a chip shortage is causing trouble for all sorts of industries, the semiconductor field is entering a surprising new era of creativity, from industry giants to innovative start-ups seeing a spike in funding from venture capitalists that traditionally avoided chip makers. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and Samsung Electronics, for example, have managed the increasingly difficult feat of packing more transistors on each slice of silicon. IBM on Thursday announced another leap in miniaturization, a sign of continued U.S. prowess in the technology race.”

       Ineredibly, chip designers are now packing more and more transistors onto tiny pieces of silicon —  working down at the level of 7 nanometers,  down to 5 nanometers, and soon, 3 nanometers!  (An atom is a tenth of a nanometer – so chip designers are now using technology at the atomic level!).    Of course, they are reaching the limit of this technology – and the next big leap will be quantum computers – which also requires huge innovation in hardware, as well as software.

    Eventually the chip shortage will be resolved.  But have we learned?  Have we learned that one ship blocking the Suez Canal can disrupt global supply chains and wreak havoc worldwide?  Have we learned what John Donne wanred, in 1623:  ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for every one of us!    Do we really think we are scot free from virus, when it rages in Brazil and India and Nepal and elsewhere?  

     The free market will signal that hardware engineers are in short supply, as their wages go way up.  But this is rather slow – it takes years to create a truly experienced productive VLSI engineer.  Surely we need some strategic direction and incentives – the global ecosystem is incredibly delicate and fragile, and needs daily tender loving care.

     Hardware!  Not plastics.  Think about it.