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Episode 2: Silicon
Episode 224th February 2022 • Traceroute • Equinix
00:00:00 00:28:54

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There are a lot of components that make up a computer. It’s amazing how the tiniest little chips can make the whole thing work. However, not many of us think about these today. We just expect our devices to work as they should. But did you know that only some decades ago, the innovations we enjoy today were essentially unthinkable? The pursuit of something better brought the tech space to where it is today.

In this episode, Renée James and Jon Gertner join us to talk about what silicon is used for in computer hardware. They break down the history of semiconductors and transistors. They also lay down the various experiments and breakthroughs that occurred before the conception of the industrial and consumer products we enjoy today.

If you want to know why and how silicon metal runs everything in tech, this episode is for you.

Episode Highlights 

[01:18] A Little Girl’s Journey to the Computer Industry

  • The CEO of semiconductor company Ampere Computing, Renée James, grew up alongside the computer industry.

  • Her exposure to tech began with her father, who used to work at HP. He built computers and motherboards.

  • Renée went on to a storied career at Intel. Now, she leads her own semiconductor company.

  • The material that has stayed constant throughout Renée’s career is silicon metal.

[03:10] What Silicon Metal Is

  • Silicon metal is the hard, brittle crystalline semiconductor that makes up transistors. These, in turn, make up chips, which make up computers.

  • In essence, what silicon metal is used for, is computers.

  • Silicon metal production began before the 70s and 80s. It inspired the name Silicon Valley.

[03:28] Bell Labs and AT&T

  • Silicon metal started with Bell Labs, a company named after Alexander Graham Bell.

  • Bell Labs produced the American Telephone and Telegraph  (AT&T) Company. The company later monopolized the telephone service in the US.

  • AT&T created an R&D development laboratory in 1925 called the Bell Telephone Laboratories. It started as a means to create a national phone system. 

  • The lab's monopoly was critical to its long-term growth and success. It allowed them to plan for innovations around communications.

[05:24] Inventing Innovative Technologies

  • Bell Labs produced technology not so much because they had great ideas, but because they had problems to solve. They had to create a national communication system from scratch.

  • Switching centers in the 1930s contained enormous banks of switches that connected people to each other.

  • The idea of the transistor was to use a new material without moving parts.

  • The transistor is the building block of all electronic products. It's an amplifier and switch that replaced vacuum tubes and electromechanical relays.

Jon Gertner: “It made everything smaller, it made it faster, and it made it better.”

  • The material that would make transistors work is silicon metal. 

[07:40] Semiconductors

  • A material that would become critical for transistors is semiconductors.

  • Semiconductors acted like conductors under certain circumstances.

  • These became valuable for wireless radios. Silicon metal, alongside germanium, was also used as a semiconductor for radar sets.

[08:08] Experimentation on Transistors and Semiconductors

  • Some experts guessed that semiconductors could be useful in the phone system in the late 1930s.

  • William Shockley experimented in turning semiconducting material into amplifiers in the 30s and 40s. It proved to be very difficult.

  • It took years of experimentation to get anywhere with silicon metal and transistors.

  • Bell Labs clearly understood the need to manipulate materials for communication systems.

Jon Gertner: “The backbone of electronics and the backbone of these vast interconnected communication systems, it's actually this sort of decades-long or almost century-long pursuit of understanding the kinds of materials we needed to create the system.”

[09:36] Semiconductive Material Breakthrough: Functional Impurity

  • Functional impurity changed how semiconductive materials work. 

  • It works by putting a tiny millionth percent of material into silicon metal or germanium. We now call it "doping."

[10:12] Germanium vs. Silicon Metal

  • Germanium was the material used for very early transistors. But they realized that silicon metal would be a better material.

  • Germanium is a rarely found material, whereas silicon metal is an abundant element.

  • Silicon metal also has a higher melting point.

  • Morris Tanenbaum created the first silicon metal transistor. He knew it would work even in boiling water because of its high boiling point.

[10:56] Scaling Transistors

  • It took around ten years for the industry to manufacture the first transistors.

  • These were single individual transistors, not integrated circuits.

  • It was clear early on that failure was going to be part of the growth process.

Jon Gertner: “When you're seeking to solve a really difficult problem—the answer would not come easy, and the answer might take a very long time.”

  • Bell Labs didn’t see the great potential of the Internet. The decentralized communications network was unthinkable to them at the time.

  • Still, their breakthroughs in silicon metals became fundamental to the age of the Internet.

[13:25] Rapid Evolution of Technology from the 70s On

  • The use of computers went from only hobbyists to being an essential part of all our lives, a growth process to which Renée had a front-row seat.

  • She always had an affinity for figuring out how to revolutionize the use of technology.

  • At Intel, she got assigned to work on getting audio and video to stream on a PC. It later became the add-on product Video for Windows (VfW).

[16:42] On Silicon Metal and the Internet

  • The phenomenon of how we use the Internet in recent years is relatively new.

  • Semiconductors are an essential material of computing. Many industries need them.

  • Transistors improve the performance of a computer. 

  • There are specialized transistors for different features like accelerated graphics, security, or audio.

[18:53] Microprocessors

  • Microprocessors are the brains of computers.

  • They needed to be accessible enough to people in a cost-effective way. It happened with desktop computers.

  • A critical step along the way was the fifth generation of microprocessors—the Pentium.

  • Microprocessors' evolution became the advent of broad-based coders. 

[20:13] On Cloud Computing

  • The biggest development in recent years has been around architecting and using transistors most efficiently.

  • It's about working on power, power distribution, and the data center.

  • Silicon metal and transistor growth and innovations help power the Internet, and, therefore, many industries. Listen to the full episode to learn more about this process!

Renée James: “There's a tremendous amount of artistry to [chip design] in the sense that the computer scientists and the physicists and the architects who do this work, in many, many ways, are dreaming up what's possible.”

[22:53] What Silicon Metal is Used For

  • Silicon metal powers everything; it’s everywhere.

  • The level of complexity in how to manufacture different kinds of silicon metal varies.

  • Bare metal cloud computing and data centers require the most advanced and most demanding silicon available in the market.

[24:21] Ampere Computing

  • Ampere Computing built the first 100% built-to-serve-cloud-software processor.

  • The processor has a different level of performance, structuring, and features that accelerate cloud software.

  • Creating more powerful semiconductors gives the software the horsepower they need. It also makes it possible to put in special features to assist applications.

[24:52] What’s Next for Silicon Metal

  • There are things in software you can’t do because of inadequate performance.

  • Innovation in the tech realm spurs more innovation in the microprocessing space.

  • Renée says we're seeing a renaissance of interest in computer design.

  • However, the complexity of chips gets lost on most people.

Renée: “A transistor is not visible to the naked eye. It is that small, it is that complicated, and it enables us to know things we couldn't have known before, to find things we couldn't find before, to do things we couldn't do before.”

Three reasons why you should listen to this episode:

  • Discover the various innovations that came to fruition through silicon metal.
  • Learn about the history and growth of semiconductors in tech.
  • Understand what silicon metal is used for in running the Internet and cloud computing

About Our Guests

Renée James is the founder and CEO of Ampere Computing. Ampere Computing is a startup semiconductor company building high-performance microprocessors for cloud and edge computing. Renée is also presently Director at Citi Corp and Oracle. Before that, she served as President of Intel for 28 years. 

Renée has extensive global operating experience in hardware and software development and semiconductor manufacturing. She advocates for representation in tech and pushes for the future of the US semiconductor industry. 

To connect with Renée, visit her LinkedIn page.

Jon Gertner is a journalist and author. He wrote the books, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Innovation and The Ice at the End of the World. Jon is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He also has published articles in major publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Wired.

To know more about Jon’s work, visit his website and Twitter

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