[VIEWPOINT]Betting the farm on chips

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[VIEWPOINT]Betting the farm on chips

I made up my mind to bet my life on semiconductors in 1973 as a college freshmen when I was completely stunned by the book “Physics and Technology of Semiconductor Devices” by Intel chairman and co-founder Andy Grove. The semiconductor industry was launched in earnest in Korea in 1974 so my life with semiconductors, which goes back over 30 years, almost coincides with Korea’s.
Last week, I announced Samsung Electronics’ successful development of a 16 gigabit NAND memory device with the industry’s first use of 50-nanometer technology. That technology, where each transistor measures one two-thousandths the thickness of a strand of hair, made it possible to fit 16.4 billion transistors, about 2.5 times the world population of 6.4 billion, into a chip the size of a finger nail. On Sept. 12, 1958, the United States succeeded in the development of an integrated circuit, or IC, which interconnected five individual chips. It took exactly 47 years for Korean technology to realize a remarkable 3.3 billion times increase in density. Or to put it another way, the technology can fit 200 years worth of daily newspapers, 8,000 songs in MP3 format, or 20 DVD quality movies into a flash memory the size of a postage stamp.
In 2002, when all kinds of negative forecasts about the semiconductor industry swirled, I presented the ‘theory of new memory growth,’ at the International Solid-State Circuit Conference, one of the most prestigious global forums on semiconductors. Industry insiders rejoiced at the recent development for proving that my theory held true for six years in a row. However, I frankly hope that even readers who are not familiar with semiconductors join the celebration. The theory of new memory growth predicted that the rate of development of the complexity of an integrated circuit defined by Moore’s law would accelerate in the future, reflecting the latest IT trend in the mobile age. There is no such thing as an absolute, everlasting truth in technology, so several decades from now, a new theory will emerge to better accommodate the era.
In general, there are two kinds of laws. One is a rather coercive kind that forces you to follow, while the other is empirically proven and developed into a law. My theory is categorized as the latter. However, it has not been so easy to empirically prove my theory as it might sound. In the eyes of researchers and developers, who are working night and day, year after year, to develop technology with double the density than the year before, you can find the resolute sense of mission to reach beyond where anyone has ever gone. Aside from scientific proof, we consider the consequences and impact of our research on the future of Korea as the top priority. There is no retreat or detour. We only move forward, thinking that if we risk everything, we can survive.
Unlike mobile phones and automobiles, which continue to stimulate the curiosity of consumers with the latest models, semiconductors have a subtle presence but quietly and solidly stand at the back of the revolutionary changes that materialize from ideas and dreams. Only ten years ago, no one could imagine a camera without a film, a camcorder without a tape, or a cellular phone with satellite television.
The products that consumers rave over, such as the newest high-capacity i-Pod nano by Apple and the portable video game device PSP by Sony, wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for flash memory, the fruit of our efforts to create a new market.
Just as the invention of paper 2,000 years ago ignited the development of civilizations, the commercialization of flash memory has brought quiet yet seismic changes to our daily lives. It is the second paper revolution, and the “flash rush” by Korea in the 21st century can be compared to the American gold rush in the 19th century.
What I am most cautious of is the current sense of ease, thinking we can let the semiconductor industry roll along now that it has grown considerably. While it is important to continue new attempts to discover new growth engines for the future, it is worrisome to shift the focus from semiconductors to a new field just because the semiconductor industry has become stable.
Koreans now hail the accomplishments of Professor Hwang Woo-suk. His work certainly was a landmark accomplishment in Korea’s history of science, and as a man of science, I am a passionate supporter of Professor Hwang. I would like to stress that semiconductors were crucial for Professor Hwang’s research to bear fruits. Without semiconductors, the information technology industry cannot exist, and similarly, it is hard to imagine biomedical engineering without IT.
I have been told I am obsessed with being in first place, a remark that could be construed as critical. I do not deny the criticism, but my obsession with first place has its reasons. If you are in the semiconductor industry, you will know that only the top finisher enjoys it all. From second place, you will see losses, so being in second place is not much different from being last.
Mr. Grove, who led me into the world of semiconductors, has famously said, “Only the paranoid survive.” While maintaining top place in the memory field for over a decade, Korea is still second in the world’s semiconductor industry. If we can become the best both in quality and in quantity, I will gladly become a paranoid. The true “new memory growth” begins from here.

* The writer is the CEO of Samsung Electronics. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Hwang Chang-gyu
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