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What is the current state of microelectronics outreach anyway?

a.k.a. the magic smoke got let out, so it doesn't work anymore

Yesterday on a pop-sci talk I heard one of the presenters say "robotics is the main reason for the emergence of self-driving cars and the world we know today," as if that could be a rock solid argument. It reminded me of a big misconception that is etched into the brains of general public, that all those fancy fields; robotics, artificial intelligence or machine learning play a major role in the development of our modern world. Perhaps they are right to a serious extent, except for that they blunder a significant chunk from the puzzle.

That chunk I call microelectronics which goes hand-in-hand with materials science, physics and all the brave engineering behind modern computing systems. Before reaching the pinnacle of our age — alias current affairs in artificial intelligence — a long way has been paved by generations of multi-disciplinary scientists and engineers towards building the computing infrastructures we know today. Unfortunately, nor microelectronics or materials science come out to be as prolific to the bare eye as their neighbouring fields, hence, the public's general bias and black-box awareness of the actual technology drivers. Ask your average Joe whether has heard of material science; chances are he has a vague idea, but yet, much more ambiguous than his image about Tesla's new self-driving car. So what or who brings this dissonant knowledge gap?

That's a surprisingly tough question to answer. For one thing though, we can definitely try pointing out some of the suspects:

1. Microelectronics could be very confusing — it deals with signals and processes that appear to be virtual, if not even magical; they cannot be seen or felt, have no smell and are squeezed within areas just about the size of a grain of sugar. It is so confusing to the public that it has led to popular myths following a post-hoc logic such as the one about the magic smoke: once it gets let out the chip doesn't work anymore, hence, to get it back up and running you just need a refill. That's what all those engineer ninjas do all day and night, right?

2. The field is not run by a single engineer ninja — another misconception is that our sphere is typically composed of "nerds" working alone in dazzling basements having no connection to the outside world. Such ideas prematurely put off all general interest in public towards anything "nerdy" as most of us are "pro people persons". That actually resonates well with superhero fiction movies like October Sky or Iron Man, where a rock-star engineer does it all by himself, being indifferent to anyone getting on his way. In reality I know no engineer working like that. In reverse — microelectronics is a very collaborative field and, in fact, most present day electronics is a product of extensive communication between various "Homo sapiens". We are cool people talking often with each other, and above all, we do not work in basements!

3. Popularizing is hard — when speaking in public, not only can you not show any big physical objects (e.g. vs. the case of a funny walking AI robot) but when presenting, one is typically limited to speaking numbers, or showing colorful polygon-o-fractal pictures at its best. All of that typically tends to induce boredom in the audience. I have so far given a few introductory talks about the field and I've learnt that public, in general, does not even differentiate analog from digital. Then what is one micro Watt anyway?

4. Vetoed speech — most engineers boiling in these industries are strictly prohibited to talk about their work. This automatically shrinks down the outreach producers to those in academia and perhaps some individual hooligans. But it is the chefs from the kitchen corner that keep the most delightful stories to tell.

5. Access to technology — while this is constantly evolving, currently only few of us are blessed to have the keys to silicon foundries as well as the complex custom software needed to create a chip. I'm not even mentioning the knowledge factor here. The reason here resides partly in pt. 1 and the fact this gear is expensive. Not every hobbyist can afford 60 K€ for a chip fabrication run. Also, sometimes even if you have the money you cannot access just any process you like due some political reasons. The good news is that there is a positive change towards process accessibility owing to the Multi Project Wafer (MPW) and Multi Layer Mask (MLM) services, now commonly offered by major foundries and coordinating institutions. It is still expensive though, but the trend is changing to the better.

Perhaps there are even more obstacles hindering the outreach of this cocktail of sciences which drive the electronics industry today. It is likely though, that public awareness will grow with time, but so far, to help make this happen, we should try to ring the bell a bit more often.

Date:Fri Dec 30 11:40:29 CET 2016


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