Friday, June 30, 2006

Vernor Vinge on semiconductors as a "single point of failure."

In this interview (also in these notes), computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge says that he worries about semiconductors as a "single point of failure" for society. He envisions a catastrophic scenario in which "the machines stop" because computers will no longer work due to a monoculture of semiconductor technology.

Is this a realistic worry? He points out that semiconductor technology is vulnerable to EM pulses, for example. However, there are other homogenous technologies that we rely on all the time -- nails, for example, or lightbulbs -- whose uniformity we ignore because we see those technologies as so simple and essential that we take them for granted. Is semiconductor technology dangerous because of its uniformity or are we heading for an environment in which it is simply taken totally for granted? Are the two scenarios actually not contradictory? That is, we could regard these technologies as basic and primitive but they could actually be vulnerable.

On the other hand, immediate, catastrophic failure is often easier to deal with than slow, subtle degradation. Because it's easy to identify the problem, it's often possible to fix it. However, we have to endure the initial catastrophe before we know what's wrong.

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