Semiconductor superpower. Where have I heard that before? Let’s go back to the moment when the silicon revolution was a topic of popular conversations. Today, as much as people are speaking of AI. It has been difficult to accept that Moore’s Law is real. Early on, the notion that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years seemed far fetched.
I remember the 1980s, and the privatisation drive that effectively gave away the country’s technology crown jewels. UK semiconductor manufacturers of the 1980s such as GEC, Plessey, Ferranti and Inmos waned or sold-up. Policy makers of that time saw globalisation as risk free. Now, that looks like selling off the family silver.
At the time, silicon chips were predicted to kill off a substantial percentage of white colour jobs. Only a few people saw the potential for massive new industries to spring-up and employ large numbers of new workers. It’s true that the jobs created were, on the whole, quite different from the ones they displaced. Admin work in a giant insurance office is miles from that of a being an on-line games developer, tester, or marketer.
My point is that Government intervention in technology hasn’t got a good record. That’s not an argument for a hands-off approach. That too has proven to have negative outcomes. I’m often tempted to go back to the story of videotape and VHS against Betamax The better technology is not always the one that wins in the global marketplace. Boring reality and dull pragmatic considerations can tip the balance.
The record shows Government Ministers get swayed by the whizzy, super advanced, “superpower” labels that get stuck on the latest promotion. Let’s face it, a photo opportunity next to an exciting futuristic image gets the media’s heart beating. Marketing hype is not new. It has a role in druming-up investments in risky ventures.
Unquestionable is the intense level of competition in the global semiconductor marketplace. If the UK is to be taken seriously when billions of dollars are placed on the table by others there really must be a matching offer. One billion over a decade will end up getting spread as thin as oil on water. A strong collaboration with other, who have common interests would help. Let’s not forget that doing the “dull stuff” can be highly profitable too.
The open market, in deals of the past, has seen a concentration of power. This is not good for a medium sized country on the edge of a continent. Inward investment is to be welcomed. At the same time strategic domestic protections should have a place. Investments in domestic technology capabilities secures a future.