I Saw the Face of God in a Semiconductor Factory
Savary strongly believed that international trade would be the antidote to war. Humans can’t conduct polyglot commerce across borders without cultivating an understanding of foreign laws, customs, and cultures. Savary also believed the Earth’s resources and the fellowship created by commerce were God-given. “It’s not God’s will that all human necessities be found in the same place,” Savary wrote. “Divine Providence has dispersed its gifts so that humans will trade together and find that their mutual need to help each other establishes ties of friendship among them.”
TSMC’s success is built on its singular comprehension of this dispersion of providential gifts. The firm is merrily known as “pure play,” meaning all it does is produce bespoke chips for customer companies. These include fabless semiconductor firms like Marvell, AMD, MediaTek, and Broadcom, and fabless consumer-electronics firms like Apple and Nvidia. In turn, TSMC relies on the gifts of other countries. Companies like Sumco, in Japan, process polycrystalline silicon sand, which is quarried for the world’s semiconductor companies in places like Brazil, France, and the Appalachian Mountains in the US, to grow hot single-crystal silicon ingots. With diamond wire saws, Sumco’s machines slice shimmering wafers that, polished so smooth they feel like nothing under a fingertip, are the flattest objects in the world. From these wafers, which are up to a foot in diameter, TSMC’s automated machines, many of which are built by the Dutch photolithography firm ASML, etch billions of transistors onto each chip-sized portion; the biggest wafers yield hundreds of chips. Each transistor is about 1,000 times smaller than is visible to the naked eye.
I’ve thus come to see TSMC as both futuristic and a touching throwback: a tribute to Savary’s largely expired romance in which liberal democracy, international commerce, and progress in science and art are of a piece, both healthful and unstoppable. More practically, however, the company, with its near monopoly on the best chips, serves as the umbo of the region’s so-called Silicon Shield, which is perhaps the sturdiest artifact of 20th-century realpolitik. For an imperial power to seize TSMC, the logic goes, would be to slay the world’s goldenest goose.
Like a dutiful valet who exists only to make his aristocrat look good, TSMC supplies the brains of various products but never claims credit. The fabs operate offstage and under an invisibility cloak, silently interceding between the flashy product designers and the even flashier makers and marketers. TSMC seems to relish the mystery, but anyone in the business understands that, were TSMC chips to vanish from this earth, every new iPad, iPhone, and Mac would be instantly bricked. TSMC’s simultaneous invisibility and indispensability to the human race is something that Jensen Huang, the CEO of Nvidia, likes to joke about. “Basically, there is air—and TSMC,” he said at Stanford in 2014.
“They call Taiwan the porcupine, right? It’s like, just try to attack. You may just blow the whole island up, but it will be useless to you,” Keith Krach, a former US State Department undersecretary, told me a few weeks before I left for Taiwan. TSMC’s chairman and former CEO, Mark Liu, has put it more concretely: “Nobody can control TSMC by force. If you take by military force, or invasion, you will render TSMC inoperative.” If a totalitarian regime forcibly occupied TSMC, in other words, its kaiser would never get its partner democracies on the phone. The relevant material suppliers, chip designers, software engineers, 5G networks, augmented-reality services, artificial-intelligence operators, and product manufacturers would block their calls. The fabs themselves would be bricked.