At SEMICON West 2020, the Honorable Al Gore, former U.S. Vice President and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental activism, commented on the world being in the midst of a “sustainability revolution.” Just what did he mean by that, and why bring that message to us? The answer is that he believes the digital transformation wields the magnitude of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but with the exponential speed that the semiconductor industry created and enabled. Ok, that would put him in the right place… SEMICON West.
Among a rich lineup of speakers to mark the 50th anniversary of the event – and 50 years of the semiconductor industry facilitating the innovation of the Information Age -- Gore joined other icons in their fields who graced the virtual stage for our featured keynotes. Each analyzed how microchip advances are critical to solving some of the world’s greatest challenges.
As host of the conference, I had the privilege of introducing Gore; Gary Dickerson, President and CEO of Applied Materials; and, Dr. John Kelly III, Executive Vice President and Director of IBM Research, along with other renowned speakers. Their insights seemed especially timely for how our global supply chain can help to build a more sustainable future. Following are a few of the highlights from their discussions.
Al Gore – The Planet Faces Existential Crisis
In his keynote conversation with Greenbiz editorial director Heather Clancy kicking off SEMICON West 2020, Gore emphasized that digital technology advances – and in particular microchip innovation – provide the greatest opportunities to overcome the world’s most epic challenges. Chip breakthroughs will be the cutting edge of what he called the rapidly growing sustainability revolution to improve energy efficiency, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and optimize the performance of renewable energy generated by solar, wind, and electric battery sources.
“We face an inflection point as we rely more on data and communications technology, particularly in areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence,” Gore said. “Industry is aware of this and working on it, but this meeting (SEMICON West 2020) with your present leadership marks a real turning point. It’s something to be proud of, something to be celebrated. It’s what gives me hope.”
Citing Moore’s Law and enormous strides made in chip efficiency and effectiveness, Gore said that within two years smart chips will make everything from solar panels and batteries to renewable energy plants and electric vehicles to be both cost- and performance-competitive with traditional energy sources. Afterwards, renewable energy will be more attractive.
Gore urged the energy-intensive semiconductor industry to shift to more renewable power sources for manufacturing. To meet this challenge, Gore encouraged the industry to embrace strategies for “step changes”:
- First, collaborate and share best practices more transparently across the entire microelectronics value chain. Examples already abound where “cutting-edge apps, AI, and deep learning reduced data server energy use significantly without hardware changes,” he said.
- Second, reduce electricity required to manufacture smarter and smaller semiconductors. Gore encouraged “all of the equipment manufacturers to work together to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in manufacturing these advanced semiconductors.”
- Third, follow the lead of a growing number of companies that “continue decarbonizing the power supply on which data centers operate,” he said.
- Fourth, work with government through the Science Based Target Initiative, which sets decarbonization limits that keep global temperatures no more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
- Finally, rely on “diversity of thought” and “collective thinking” when innovating for the digital future. Research and experience prove that different points of view lead to better decisions. The technology industry has made progress in workforce diversity, but more can be done, Gore said. This last point plays to our collaborative strengths as SEMI members and an industry.
“It is just unbearable to imagine a future generation living with the kinds of consequences scientists tell us would ensue if we don’t heed their warnings and solve this crisis,” Gore said, drawing parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to accept the situation and make sure we do everything we can. I am inspired by this industry’s leadership, innovation, and spirit to rise to the challenge and make a difference.”
Gary Dickerson – Making Possible A Better Future
To ensure another 50 years of accelerating growth and innovation, today’s semiconductor leaders must share a deep commitment to a more sustainable and just supply chain industrywide.
“The first thing we need to do is decouple our growth from environmental impacts,” Dickerson said in his keynote. “Our responsibility as leaders is to leave the world a better place.”
Dickerson said that while he firmly believes the explosion of processing and storage data has “the potential to change the world,” the downside is that it also has the potential to rapidly expand our industry’s carbon footprint. Without dramatic change, electrical usage will continue to rise as machines generate and consume more data, compute performance progresses, and workloads from the edge to the cloud grow.
“It will be impossible to create neural networks (using AI) with the rate of today’s power consumption,” Dickerson said, noting that more improvements must be made in the performance and efficiency of semiconductor devices, architectures, structures, materials, and advanced packaging.
Dickerson urged the electronics ecosystem to “permanently think and act differently” by breaking down communication barriers among systems integrators, equipment suppliers, design and manufacturing service providers, and other industry players. Sharing learnings and best practices will be vital to this change, he said.
Dickerson unveiled SuCCESS2030 (Supply Chain Certification for Environmental and Social Sustainability) – Applied Materials’ 10-year roadmap for creating a more sustainable supply chain – during his talk. Under the SuCCESS2030 initiative, Applied Materials will hold its suppliers to the company’s own high standards for committing to renewable energy and workforce diversity by setting targets such as:
- Reducing supply chain carbon emissions 15 percent in four years by relying more on intermodal shipping than air freight
- Transitioning the supply chain to recycled content packaging, with a target of 80 percent by the end of 2023
- Eliminating phosphate-based, pre-treatment of metal surfaces by 2024
- Working with trade associations like SEMI to develop diversity and inclusion strategies to increase underrepresented minorities in the workplace
Dickerson said that deeper and more open partnerships between Applied Materials and its customers and suppliers have led to a number of promising outcomes. Examples include hardware and software upgrades, product and service optimizations, and improvements in chip architectures that increased throughput density for higher system performance while decreasing power and chemical consumption, costs, and space requirements. What’s more, Applied Materials recently introduced its Selective Tungsten Process Technology, which uses new materials, atomic-level designs, and ultra-clean rooms to improve the performance of interconnected transistors while lowering power consumption.
Dickerson said the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened the world to the power of digital technologies that make it possible to communicate, collaborate, and share data across the globe while sheltering in place.
“When I think of the world’s grand challenges, it’s clear the semiconductor industry has a critical role to play,” Dickerson said. “I strongly believe we’re in a position to shape the future and leave the world a better place.”
John E. Kelly III – 50 Years That Changed The World … And We’re Just Getting Started
During the past half century, semiconductors have given rise to essentially every major technology advance, Kelly said in his keynote. Microchip innovation has played a central role in rocketing humans to the moon, simulating nuclear weapons on a supercomputer, connecting people to nearly everything via mobile devices, and keeping people alive with pacemakers and other electronic medical devices.
The strides in innovation have been staggering. In 1970, a semiconductor chip featured a few thousand components. Today, that number stands at 50 billion. Breakthroughs in everything from materials and chemicals to polishing, processes and interconnectivity have driven gains in power-efficiency and performance while reducing chip size.
Moore’s Law is far from dead. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Kelly said, semiconductor innovation today is not at “the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning, and the best is yet to come – driven by extreme collaboration and extreme innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges.”
Kelly said he believes technology is the only answer to the onslaught of grand challenges confronting societies and people today, including air and water pollution, climate change, diminishing natural resources, storm-related disasters, food supply shortages, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelly lamented that the world’s response to COVID-19 illustrates that “not much has changed” since the Spanish Flu crisis a century ago. The same technology – masks – remains the primary defense.
“I think if we had used digital technologies and computer modeling earlier on, we could have detected the spread of this flu” to minimize its impact, Kelly said.
Today’s computer modeling and analytics capabilities aren’t quite ready yet to tackle such complex problems as pandemics, global warming, or water contamination. However, Kelly said, several game-changing technologies – all powered by semiconductors – are emerging as promising answers to our most daunting challenges.
“It’s all about the data, and artificial intelligence is the way forward – it’s analytics on steroids, and many new devices will be required to drive AI at the scale of these problems,” Kelly said. “The second technology revolves around not just cloud computing but edge computing and cloud at the edge. Data will be generated in enormous amounts at the edge, which is where we will need to store and compute the data. The next is Quantum Computing. Frankly, we do not have enough computing power yet to look at some of the biggest challenges we have.”
All these advances will present new challenges for the semiconductor industry, such as developing new materials, new chip architectures and new mapping structures for AI-embedded devices to reach their full potential.
With many of these disruptive innovations too large for any company to solve singlehandedly, Kelly advised industry players to form more “radical partnerships.”
“Extreme collaboration and extreme innovation will drive solutions to all these world challenges,” Kelly said. “The best is yet to come.”
Radical partnerships… Sustainable revolutions… Extreme innovation… It’s been 50 years of SEMICON West, but it sounds like we’re just getting the real magic started. Like John Kelly said and the other keynoters emphasized, the best is yet to come.
Dave Anderson is president of SEMI Americas.