Anne Sandager
3 weeks ago

Chip War: The World’s Tiniest Arms Race Explained

In the world of microchips, atom-sized innovations can change the cause of history. Here is how.
VadimVasenin / DepositPhotos
VadimVasenin / DepositPhotos

One nanometer – a measurement so unfathomably small that it’s hard to find a frame of reference to compare. A nail grows one nanometer per second, a red blood cell is 7000 nm wide. Yet, the world’s biggest superpowers are investing billions in single nanometer improvements of computer chips.

The massive investments are no coincidence. With computer chips powering virtually all advanced military systems today including jet fighters, missiles and drones, national security hinges on access to advanced chips, says engineer and host of ‘The AI Revolution’ podcast, Anders Bæk:

“Computer chips are in everything for all aspects of our everyday life and in the military. The nation that can develop, or has access to the best microchips, is the nation that is the strongest militarily, technologically, and economically, and across everything, they are the strongest.”

Historically, the U.S and allies have led the global race to design and produce the most powerful chips, but China is rapidly catching up with major implications for international security.

Caught by surprise

China’s largest microchip manufacturer, SMIC, caught the West off guard when it presented the country’s first homegrown 7-nanometer chip in August.

The advanced chip is but a handful of years behind US-led technology, an achievement which was believed to be impossible after the US and the Netherlands restricted exports of advanced chip-making equipment to China in 2022.

The 7 nm chip called ‘Kirin 9000’ is part of Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro smartphone which started selling last year while US Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, was on a round-trip in China to ease trade tensions between the two superpowers.

The Mate 60 was quietly introduced into stores without a formal launch event - an unusually discrete approach likely taken in anticipation of the criticisms which soon followed.

Secretary Raimondo, who has led US efforts to curb China’s chip advancements, called the new breakthrough ‘deeply concerning’ in an interview with Bloomberg, and vowed to take the “strongest possible” action to protect U.S national security.

The US government has since started an on-going investigation into whether China imported chips-equipment illegally around American bans to manufacture the 7 nm chip. However, it remains a mystery how SMIC was actually able to confound experts and produce the high-end chip.

Implications of Chinese chip sovereignty

Despite stringent export controls, China is ‘chipping’ away at the US advantage when it comes to accessing high-end chips. Anders Bæk’s best estimate is that it will be ‘five to ten years’ before China can match the chips that the US can design and manufacture via its allies in Taiwan and Holland. He points out that paradoxically, the US resolute policy of denying China access to chip equipment, has bolstered innovation for companies like SMIC.

China, in particular, is striving to be the global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. Two weeks ago, a group of scientists from the University of Electronic Science presented a new low-power computer chip for AI use, which claimed to be “world’s most energy-efficient,” according to an article by South China Morning Post.

AI has already demonstrated its impact in fake news generation, with AI deep fakes making their entrances in the Indian and Pakistani elections this year. “With AI technology, they would be able to make it even harder for our democracies to stick together, " said Bæk, “having the strongest chip is the foundation of being the strongest AI power,” he added.

In the long term, the implications of Chinese chip independence could extend even further, Bæk warns. Looking into a future where AI powered machines could replace soldiers on the battlefield, having just a slight edge in chip development could have major military implications, according to Anders Bæk:

“AI technology can be just as dangerous as atomic bombs.”

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