Federico Faggin (Creator of the first microchip)

Un italiano in America che ha cambiato il mondo: incontriamo il grande Federico Faggin

Jun 10, 2019 4409 ITA ENG

It's not every day that you meet someone who has actually changed the world. Maybe, as I recall, for me it's the first time, even if our chat took place on the phone, connecting Italy and California thanks to some devices all equipped with (at least) one microchip. And Federico Faggin, the creator of the first microchip in history, is the protagonist of this interview. He is a wonderful Italian who immigrated to America some time ago, an extraordinary testimonial of how exceptional things happen when Italy and the United States meet, who just last June 8th was the protagonist of a beautiful event in Vinci, Leonardo's homeland, organized by our friend Roberto Bonzio, facilitator of this interview as well (thanks Roberto!)

Mr. Faggin, it was 1971 when you started a digital revolution, creating the first microchip ever, called Intel 4004. Silicon Valley owes its name to you, at least in part. At that point you were already a product of the excellent union between Italy and the United States, having been born and raised in Italy but then having refined your working knowledge in California. In those six months when you took over the project and completed it, was the historical scope of what you were doing clear to you?

Of course, it was clear to me from the beginning that the microprocessor would be a revolutionary product, even if this were not a real invention because it was already talked about as something that would be realized in the future. But it was necessary to have a new manufacturing technology that would make it possible. This technology was my first project at Fairchild Semiconductor just having arrived in California in early 1968. There I invented the MOS technology with silicon gate, technology that allowed making all the pieces necessary to make a monolithic computer, including the microprocessor. The world's first microprocessor was called Intel 4004. I designed it mostly by myself using my own key ideas and was in charge of its realization at Intel in 1970-71.

The microprocessor had a huge impact because it revolutionized the way we design electronic systems and opened up a multitude of new applications that were previously impossible. I must say, however, that reality far exceeded my expectations for the speed with which the microprocessor was adopted and for the novelty of the many products made possible for the first time. For example, I hadn't imagined the advent of the Internet which, in order to be transformative, would require hundreds of millions of people to have their own computers at their disposal.

With regard to the Internet, it was almost impossible to predict the future because the dynamics at stake were completely new and required not only the creation of the first personal computers, but above all their diffusion to levels so widespread as to be considered impossible at the time. Then it was necessary to connect the computers to each other, which could be done on an institutional level, but not on a large scale for private users. With the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the rise of the Internet was literally breathtaking.

The microprocessor was really a fundamental invention because it allowed reducing the size, the energy consumption and the cost of a computer to the point that even a toothbrush could contain a powerful computer. Our world has literally changed. Just look at the influence of smartphones that now dominate the scene and that almost every person has in their pocket today. Forty years ago, the electronics contained in one of these mobile phones would have occupied an entire building of 2000 square meters.

How much Italian is there in the creativity, genius and stubbornness that led you to create the Intel 4004, and then to deal with the development of all the microprocessors of the first five years of Intel's history, then to create the first integrated data-voice communication and again the first touchpads and touch screens?

Let's say that at the base of all this there was a great passion that motivated me to carry on the knowledge, the technologies, the new devices and the new ways to interact with the machines. Everything then happened according to circumstances.

When I started working at Olivetti in 1960, I never expected that the design and construction of a computer the size of a cabinet would lead me in just 10 years to a degree in physics, the development of new MOS technology, the first microprocessor and then ten more years of innovation giving rise to the first four generations of microprocessors.

The creation of the first touchpads and touchscreens, of which I am co-inventor, have then irreversibly changed the way we interact with our mobile devices.

When I designed the 4004, I never imagined that we would have an iPhone 40 years later with the smartphone capabilities we are used to now. This was many years before the personal computer, the data telecommunications revolution, the Internet and GPS. I was aware that there would be a lot of new applications, but what I had to do first was bring this innovation to the world, dedicating all my energy to its success, so that it would have its roots in the world. 

My zeal and stubbornness also went against the opinion of Intel's management, who thought that those devices were only interesting as "custom products" for some customers, because they could not imagine the future possibilities. Only after demonstrating that by using the microprocessor you could create control systems much more easily than before, I managed to convince the management of Intel to introduce the 4004 on the general market.

This determination and will are not exclusive to an Italian, even if I perceive them to be part of my genes and my culture. What I find characteristically Italian instead was my versatility due to a good general preparation, and my intuition. Compared to an American engineer who tends to be specialized in one discipline, I was an expert both in the new MOS silicon gate technology and in the logic and circuit design of integrated circuits, and also in computer architecture, given my experience at Olivetti where I had partly designed and built one when I was 19 years old.

As mentioned earlier, the MOS silicon gate technology was my first project in the USA. This technology was 5 times faster and 2 times denser than the previous MOS technology and made it possible to make previously impossible devices, such as dynamic RAM memories, non-volatile memories and CCD image sensors, not to mention the microprocessor that, to be transformative, required the density and speed that only the silicon gate could provide.

The typically Italian versatility I mentioned depends on two factors. The first is the merit of the Italian schools; I graduated in physics at the University of Padua (with 110 cum laude), and I had a preparation with which I was able to do anything, from physics, to mathematics, to engineering. I also owe a lot to the preparation I received in the industrial technical school with good electronics laboratories. The Italian school gave me a very good basis and taught me not only to think, but also to apply the teachings. Another important factor was the education I received in my family, with my father as professor of philosophy both at the Liceo Classico high school and at the University of Padua, a scholar who wrote more than 40 books.

In our house there was a rich library of literature and classical music that I was able to use. It was the influence of the environment that made me deal with the nature of awareness. Today there is a non-profit foundation that I created with my wife, Elvia, which scientifically studies this aspect of reality and funds research groups at various American universities.

I have personally studied the nature of awareness, its importance and why it distinguishes us from the machines we make and from artificial intelligence. Many scholars in the U.S. believe that one day the machines will be aware. I disagree and have developed theories and models to support my thesis.

Yes, please let’s talk about the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation, founded in 2011. I understand that the object of your studies is the synthesis between science and spirituality ... is it possible to draw a parallel concerning the encounter between these two pillars of everybody’s life and the one between the United States and Italy?

I would say that Italian culture and education are more open to humanism, philosophy, intuition, and creativity. Italians also stand out in art and in the joy of living, always accompanied by a sense of balance. What I am doing now somehow reflects these cultural themes. I've lived in the United States for many years and, certainly, the dynamics have changed in Italy too. However, if there has been a change, it has been progressive, so I hope that what I have said is still part of Italian culture.

I think that the human being is above all a spiritual being, much more than a biological machine that materialistic science proposes to us. Therefore, the union of science and spirituality is fundamental to face and solve the problems before us. For this reason I created the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation, backing out from all other commitments and dedicating myself to the discovery of what profoundly unites the inner world (spirituality) to the outer world (science), an activity that gives me great joy and motivation.

I was very impressed by your reasoning on awareness, which makes us human and will always differentiate us from machines. But my summary is brutal: can I ask you to explain your fascinating theory of awareness to our readers as well? Do you think that these theses are easier to spread in Italy or the United States?

I must say that Italy, because of its openness to humanistic culture and its intuitive capacity, is more prepared to accept this vision than other countries. In the United States, a certain mechanicism and technicality prevails. However, people who recognize that science cannot explain the nature of awareness are on the rise all over the world.

The nature of our feelings and sensations and of our emotional experience cannot be explained because there is nothing in physics that tells us how electrical and biochemical signals can be translated into experience. We must therefore assume that awareness is a property already present in quantum fields of which everything that exists is made. This step can have the same consequences as the Copernican revolution: to overturn our vision of reality and change the materialistic direction of humanity. I am excited to be able to carry through this discussion in the years I have left.

You are originally from the Vicenza area, which houses an American military base and is to all intents and purposes one of the most "American" areas of Italy, as well as being a province that alone exports more than the country of Portugal. Is there a similarity of any kind between Vicenza and Silicon Valley?

There is without a doubt. Vicenza, with its province, is one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial areas in Italy. Unfortunately, with the bankruptcy of two major banks, it is more difficult to find funds for investment and to increase the scale of activities. Unfortunately, today, if you don't grow quickly, the other countries copy your idea and take over and this ends up destroying the entrepreneur himself.

The global economy has changed the rules of the game and Italy still does not have the organizational leanness and deep understanding of what is happening in the rest of the world. In the last 10-15 years the province of Vicenza has lost much of its advantage and many companies have failed because of the global economic recession. Despite everything, people are industrious and therefore the economy can recover. The scale needed to compete in the global economy is enormous, however, and the availability of funding cannot be waived.

What is there of "Italian" to export to America, and what of "American" to export to Italy, today?

My impression is that, all things being equal, the average Italian lives better than the average American. Just think of the cost of medical care and university education. In America, medical care is very expensive and not everyone is insured. An illness can therefore lead a family to financial ruin. University education, then, forces families to pay huge costs that often make it necessary for both parents to work. 

In my opinion, despite the recession and the drop in average wages, in Italy one continues to live quite well because families help each other. If in a country as rich as the United States many people have to do two jobs to make it through, then life is not so easy on the other side of the ocean either. In the US, a large section of the population suffers and is unhappy. That was one of the factors that contributed to the election of its current President.

There are many other things, however, where the Italian must learn to do better because they greatly reduce the country's productivity. It is enough to mention the excessive bureaucracy that reigns at all levels of management, the lack of ability to organize themselves in a rational and efficient way and to function as a team, and the lack of meritocracy that frustrates instead of enhancing the most capable people. 

In Italy your latest book has just been published, what is it about?

The book is entitled "SILICIO, Dall'invenzione del microprocessore alla nuova scienza della consapevolezza" (From the invention of the microprocessor to the new science of awareness). It describes my most important inventions made with silicon. It is an autobiographical book that tells of my four lives: the first in Italy where I was born, raised, graduated in Physics and had my first work experience. My second life as a researcher, engineer and inventor of many products and technologies in Silicon Valley. The third, also in California, was the life of a serial entrepreneur who founded three high technology companies and led a fourth. My fourth life started about 30 years ago and ran parallel to my third life for about 20 years. Ten years ago, it led me to leave my career as an entrepreneur and devote myself body and soul to the scientific study of awareness.

SILICIO was published by Mondadori at the end of April and tells not only my personal story and that of my achievements, but also describes my most intimate path that led me to experiment and study one of the most important mysteries that there is: the nature of awareness, a subject so far dealt with almost exclusively by philosophers.

The new science of awareness refers to the science that starts from the idea that awareness is an irreducible property of nature instead of being produced exclusively by a brain made only of matter. The final chapter of the book describes my model of the nature of awareness, which will continue to be enriched by further insights. 


You may be interested