A Poison Apple

What is the real cost of technology?

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As I was researching ‘green’ as it relates to the world of semiconductors I recalled the big story from early 2011 about Apple’s alleged poisoning of workers in China manufacturing plants and wondered whether the situation has changed. At the same time, when I hold my iPhone in my hand, I am sadly aware that my desire for technology might have been at the cost of someone’s health.

I brought this up to Chris Rowen, a Cadence fellow now, and most recently CTO at Tensilica. He had some thoughts:

“There certainly are specialty chemicals used in semiconductors and some of them are reasonably nasty but I would point out a postulate I have which is, the amount of nasty chemicals used in manufacturing something is proportional among other things to just the total mass of that electronic good. So if you take a PC versus laptop versus a smart phone I would make a pretty sizable bet that the total amount of hazardous materials that need to be processed or are released into the environment goes down significantly from desktop to laptop to smart phone. That’s because there’s so much less stuff: you can measure one in tens of pounds and the other in hundreds of grams so it’s really a pretty dramatic shift I think in the absolute amount [of chemicals used to manufacture these devices].”

He also pointed out that there is a nice correlation between the drive for mobility and the unintended positive consequence of probably less environmental impact from having these smaller more mobile devices. “I don’t think it makes the problem go away but I do think that there’s something to be hopeful about.”

Finally, he mentioned that this topic touches on a general observation about the impact of technology. “We go on pursuing this wave after wave of new classes of devices which are generally smaller over time just because they are more convenient but it takes a lot of technology to do it. In a sense we are, with each generation, paying for fewer atoms and paying for more bits – there’s more knowledge content in the broadest sense in these newer products compared to the old ones.”

And at the end of the day, that’s why we do what we do. Moore’s Law enables this progress fundamentally, but it’s the genius in the minds of the engineers that make it a reality. My hope is that that same genius would also figure out how to manufacturing our cool devices with less dangerous impacts on health and the environment, if that is even possible.