AI is software which runs on hardware. Hardware may be software, but it must be manufactured to implement the software.
The makes the most important technology in the world EUV.
Extreme UltraViolet lithography (EUV) uses high frequency ultraviolet light to etch circuits on silicon chips. It’s important because, as circuits grow closer, the wavelengths of visible light become too wide to etch with them.
A Dutch company, ASML, was the first to perfect EUV lithography. Creating a microprocessor with an ASML EUV system isn’t that simple, either. Taiwan Semiconductor was the first processor maker to do it. (Micron will soon start using EUV for memory chips.) Intel is also working on adapting EUV, and their “roadmap” includes EUV chips with line distances measured in Angstroms, one-tenth of a nanometer.
The new Cold War with China has EUV at its heart. ASML isn’t allowed to export its gear to China. Chinese chip makers are several generations behind the West as a result. Moore’s Law marches on, but not everywhere.
When we talk about Moore’s Law, moreover, let’s not forget what I call “Moore’s Second Law,” the idea that costs increase with complexity. This has brought us to the point where fewer than a half-dozen companies can take advantage of EUV technology.
If China renounced violence over Taiwan, this Cold War could end and EUV might become more freely available. But at this point even Xi Jinping’s word may not be assurance enough for the West, so embedded has the idea of “One China” become, despite a complex history including Taiwan’s occupation by, among others, the Dutch.
Given the processing requirements of large language models, chips made using EUV are essential. That’s why Nvidia is now worth almost $1 trillion. Taiwan Semiconductor is their manufacturing partner. It also helps that the CEOs of both Nvidia and AMD, which is beating Intel in microprocessor designs, were both born in Tainan, the island’s capital until 1887.
If you want to understand today’s tech, and its global tensions, forget AI. Think about EUV. Think about the Dutch and think about Taiwan.