The Technical Progress of the World, as seen at ISSCC

The world’s largest, oldest, and most important electronics technical conference is the International Solid State Circuits Conference, ISSCC.  It’s been held every year since 1954, about as long as there have been solid state circuits, i.e. transistors.  It was originally held at the University of Pennsylvania, then alternated between New York and San Francisco, and is now in San Francisco all the time, that being the closest city to Silicon Valley.

I’ve been going for a long time, and every year there’s something astounding.  This year Tim Denison from Medtronics described the latest generation of pacemakers: a little capsule about the size of a Contac that can be implanted directly on the heart muscle.   It contains a battery good for ten years, a wireless telemetry system, and a processor capable of monitoring the heart and stimulating it.  It uses MEMS accelerometers to measure the actual motion of the heart beating.  He also described Deep Brain Stimulation (and who doesn’t want that?), which is where pacemakers implanted deep in the brain can correct for dystonia, epilepsy or even depression.  “We are fundamentally electrical beings,” he said, and managing the flow of electricity around our bodies is critical to our health.

There were about 3000 people at the conference, and over 200 papers presented in 26 tracks.  It’s overwhelming.   People attend from all over the world.   The papers are about equally split between North America, Asia, and Europe.   The work represents the latest and most significant results in integrated semiconductor circuits, which is the most important technology developed since WW II.    It underlies everything in communication, computing, and now even energy.  A solar cell is basically a single large chip, a diode to be precise.

So ISSCC provides a nice means of measuring how the effort in electronics has spread around the world in the last 50 years.   In the 1930s and 40s, only the US, UK, and Germany were doing major work in electronics.  Where is it being done now?  To find out, I counted how many papers came from each country, and from each US state, since the US is more continent than country.   Here’s how it looks:

Number of ISSCC Papers for Selected Years By Region
1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
44 66 90 87 156 206 World
Asia
1 3 27 33 36 32 Japan
9 18 Korea
9 Taiwan
2 2 Hong Kong
2 Singapore
1 India
US West
5 14 21 16 26 24 California
2 2 2 11 Oregon
1 Washington
US East and Canada
11 6 6 3 4 8 New York
11 17 8 4 11 New Jersey
4 6 3 7 9 8 Massachusetts
2 6 1 2 2 Pennsylvania
1 1 2 3 5 Ontario
2 2 1 1 Vermont
1 Quebec
1 Maryland
US South
1 7 6 16 6 Texas
1 1 1 1 2 Arizona
1 1 2 2 2 Florida
3 Georgia
3 North Carolina
1 Mexico
US Midwest
1 1 1 1 Illinois
4 Michigan
1 2 Colorado
2 1 Minnesota
2 Indiana
1 Iowa
1 Wisconsin
Europe
1 3 4 6 13 Netherlands
2 1 1 6 8 Switzerland
1 2 12 Italy
1 1 1 3 8 Belgium
2 1 3 4 United Kingdom
1 2 3 7 4 Germany
1 4 France
1 2 2 Austria
3 Finland
1 Ireland
1 Israel

The most striking thing to notice is how the number of places that produce papers has expanded steadily over the years. Japan used to be the only country from Asia that contributed, and now the Four Tigers contribute as well, and recently also India.  1960 was the actually the first year for a paper from Japan.  Korea’s rise has been spectacular; their first paper was in 1995, and now they’re only behind Japan and California, and they are now major players in DRAM, flash memory, and embedded processors.  China had its first paper in 2009,  missed 2010, but had several in 2011.

The range of US states has also expanded; it used to be that just the major high-tech states like New York and California contributed, but now a lot of papers come from the Midwest and the South. The same also goes for Europe;  Switzerland and the Netherlands have been steady contributors, but now papers are coming from Italy and Finland.

That’s how it works.   As more and more of the world develops, talented people from more and more places get to participate in the great adventure of engineering.    They first come to conferences like this to learn what others are doing, and soon want to boast about their own work.  The first papers usually come from universities, and then from major companies who are getting involved in some serious new field.   Sometimes the companies are local, and sometimes they’re multinationals who are looking for new talent resources.   IBM and Intel have papers from a particularly wide range of regions.

The other thing to notice is who is not on this list.   I’ve never seen a paper from Russia or Eastern Europe, from the Islamic world, from Africa, or from Latin America.  There is actually one paper from Mexico, but that was from an ex-pat American, the great analog designer Bob Widlar (inventor of the op-amp and the linear regulator), who was down there drinking himself to death.   However, I expect to see papers from Mexico soon, and from Brazil.  Russia and Poland should also be chipping in, as should Turkey and Egypt.  There’s a lot of room to still expand in this field.

It’s also of some interest to see how the contributions have shifted over time.  There’s been a definite shift from the US east coast to the west and to Texas, which matches the change in population and economic importance.   New Jersey used to be a powerhouse, but disappeared in 2010 due to the tragic collapse of Bell Labs.    Japan was utterly dominant in 1990, producing almost 40% of the papers.   That was the era of widespread fears in the US about Japanese technology, prompting book titles like “Japan in the Passing Lane”, but then came the collapse of its real estate bubble, and it settled down to being a major but not dominant player.

I find much to be hopeful about in this table.  It shows a steady increase in cooperation, and a steady increase in opportunity.  Not everyone is in the game yet, but so many new players are joining that there’s hope for everyone.   ISSCC itself has spun off conferences in Asia and Europe.

It used to be that if you were a smart kid in Andar Pradesh that you had to come to the US to make it.   Now there are major league scouts all over the world, and expansion teams playing in steadily more places.   If you can grasp how a phase-locked loop works, or a carry-lookahead adder, or a precharged DRAM bit line, then you have a chance at the big leagues.

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One Response to The Technical Progress of the World, as seen at ISSCC

  1. Pingback: The Research Organizations of the World as seen at ISSCC « A Niche in the Library of Babel

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