»Zeitenwende« is necessary
January 02, 2023
We don't know anything – this is our chance!
Source: 70 years of »Elektronik« 20.2022 – Anniversary issue
Cheers – 70 years of »Elektronik«, hurray!
Comment by Georg Steinberger, Chairman of FBDi
70 years of innovation and engineering masterpieces. But what have we achieved as an industry?
Contributed to climate change? Great!
Promoted computational overkill à la the Internet and Bitcoin? Awesome!
Scaring the youth with our belief in innovation and growth? Wow!
How about a turnaround for our industry as well?
An overview of all the important innovations with which the electronics industry has revolutionized the world over the past 70 years would be enough to fill a book.
It has come a long way, from the first transistor by Bell Labs researchers Bardeen, Brattain and, above all, William Shockley (1947), to the 1 terabit flash memory, from the first integrated circuit by engineer Jack Kilby at TI (1958) to multicore processors with 100 billion transistors and a computing power that far exceeds anything anyone with a halfway technical interest could imagine. Amazing, isn't it?
But: When I wrote my hymns of praise for this innovative industry on the occasion of the 50th and 60th anniversaries of electronics and the incredible technical achievements it has made possible, I never dreamed that I would once choose an »alarmist« tone.
After all, the curse and blessing of innovation are closely intertwined: we have never had it so good (despite Corona, war and economic crisis), we have never had as much technical resources at our disposal as we do now – and yet we are standing as humanity and as a growth-oriented meritocracy on the edge of an abyss of our own making.
Nevertheless we have a choice: which cliff do we want to jump off? Climate change, autocracy, waste of resources, overpopulation, social inequality?
Joking aside (I wish): After more than 70 years of downright amazing quantum leaps in microelectronics – and the best is yet to come, if you look at the roadmap of the world's leading (European!) semiconductor research center IMEC – you have to seriously ask yourself: what's the point and what's next?
Is innovation as we know it the panacea or part of the problem? All of these questions have both a technical and a social/economic/environmental dimension that must be seen against the backdrop of our human creativity. And the answers may play a central role in solving various future problems. Whether and how, depends very much on us, whether Boomer, Generation XYZ, Millennial or Digital Native. Keyword »Zeitenwende«.
High-tech – part of the problem
This should begin with a confession: We – that's the high-tech industry along with its various branches, from chipmakers to developers of AI-based spy software – have no idea what we're doing, or rather wreaking havoc. But this is perhaps an opportunity for a new development, a new direction that should be given to our industry.
Of course, this is only possible in the context of and with the consensus of society as a whole. The root of the evil is not »innovation« but the way we humans manage our habitat: with a successive destruction, driven by all the bad characteristics we have (the range is abundant).
In my argument, let me assume that the innovation of our industry is part of the problem. It has contributed to greater convenience, but has a rather negative environmental footprint. It drives gigantic resource consumption and energy demand as each of the current eight billion people and soon (2050) ten billion people want to live their lives with the same dignity and comfort as we do: Car, smartphone, entertainment, etc.
The consequences of »business as usual«are clear to see. And although many countries have committed themselves to climate targets, they have not yet come far on the way to achieving them. On the contrary, things are getting worse before they get better. And climate or CO2 is not the only issue we have: The consumption of important resources (e.g. metals) is increasing, at the cost of disastrous environmental destruction everywhere. Ten billion people living like us? Hmm ...
To make this possible without depriving the next 500 generations of people - not to mention the fauna and flora - of their livelihood, we need a different way of doing business and also a different attitude towards innovation.
Innovation is what helps us to preserve our livelihoods while at the same time creating new jobs.
A body unsuspicious of criticism of capitalism, the University of the Federal Armed Forces, in the specific case Professor Axel Schaffer of the Institute for the Development of Sustainable Organizations, Munich, gave a definition of strong sustainability in a lecture:
»In the concept of strong sustainability, natural capital may only be used to the extent that other functionally equivalent natural resources are created,« and further: »Growth is not an end in itself and can only be justified from a sustainability point of view if it achieves the goals of sustainable development.«
Green growth as a guiding principle?
During a discussion at FBDi more than a year ago about the development of our industry, but also of technology as such, we came to the following conclusion:
The next disruptive cycle of progress, after today's dominant information technology, must be driven by "true green" innovation, worthy of the name because it radically focuses on saving, efficiency and recycling. We called it Cleantec 2.0, because what goes under Cleantec today mostly means only linear improvement and in no way contributes to a massive change in our lousy environmental record.
How about this: a safe, self-driving vehicle that weighs a maximum of 500 kg, is made of 90% recycled material and promises minimal environmental impact; a solar cell that achieves 80% energy efficiency and does not use precarious materials like arsenic; a green chemistry ...
Let me quote Professor Schaffer again: »In all likelihood, however, green growth will not solve environmental problems. This would require an unforeseeable absolute decoupling of growth and environmental consumption (...).«
While green growth could be a competitive advantage and a "jobs machine," the unfortunate reality is that far too little is happening to make a difference. Innovation, just like growth, is no longer an end in itself, but must be subject to a much greater degree of true sustainability thinking.
To come back to electronics and its innovative power: Despite all the technical masterpieces, the contribution to remedying the global environmental misery is manageable. Waiting for the 100-picometer quantum processor (the corresponding wafer fab will probably cost $250 billion) to eliminate all problems in 2052 would probably be naïve.
Innovation, and especially innovation in our industry, needs to get back to the center of society with the aspiration of making the world a better place than we found it.
Some will say, »that's the way it is,« but forget the trade-off we have made on the backs of the environment.
How can we do that in a time when hardly anyone wants to enter the engineering profession and hundreds of thousands of boomer engineers want to retire? In which engineering degrees no longer automatically lead to social advancement, as they did 50 years ago? In which no moon landing inspires young people to pursue technology or science? In which technology is becoming too abstract, seen as too causal to our current challenges? In which nothing seems to fit between smartphone and ego anymore?
Dialogue of the generations
I don't know, but I'll make a suggestion anyway: British physicist and science journalist Brian Cox recently said in a podcast (not verbatim, but in spirit) that admitting we don't know anything could put us back on the path of knowledge-seeking, away from pure faith in growth. To what, then, could knowledge-seeking be better applied than to the preservation of our habitat?
We older people in particular are currently stumbling through the world with hubris and hubris, thinking we know everything and not seeing the scorched earth we are leaving behind. The conflict with our successor generations that is opening up here is not necessarily getting any smaller as a result. What would it be like if those of us who believe that sustainable innovation could make a difference set out to seek dialog with the younger generation – without trying to explain the world to them – to find out what their vision, their utopia of a livable and sustainable world looks like and help them to shape it?
I think this dialogue hardly takes place, if at all, otherwise we would not be facing an engineer shortage of epic proportions.
To convince young people - of all ages - to engage with technology that is complicated, abstract and costly (to learn as well as to explore), you first have to cross many bridges, one shakier than the other, success not guaranteed: Humility in the face of one's own cluelessness, credibility, enthusiastic, ability to engage in dialog, persistence, commitment and, last but not least, giving up a little of one's own comfort. In other words: working longer hours; getting out to schools and explaining; taking on sponsorships, etc.
So what would I like to read in electronics in 2052?
Germany has achieved its »tougher« climate, energy and environmental goals. It has developed technologies that have also helped many other countries drastically reduce their impact on the environment through an unprecedented innovation drive that started after 2022 and has produced two dozen Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and mathematics over the course of 30 years;
Germany has become the most popular, first racism-free country in the United Nations, attracting immigrants from all over the world and a mecca of human technology research; Berlin, Hamburg and Munich are the world's first "natural" smart cities, with free mass transit, affordable housing for all, and partner cities around the world that are provided "future urbanity" technologies and technology concepts for free; the largest German semiconductor manufacturer, also the largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world, inaugurates its first 1-Ångström chip factory near Munich; the recycling rate for all industrially manufactured products is 99%; I leave the remaining space free for your reading preferences...