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It's the silicon chip.Not surprisingly, most non-scientists find that the effort of trying to grasp what a siliconis turns out to be just as bewildering as the struggle to comprehend what a silicon chipdoes.Fifty years ago, the world's first electronic digital computers weighed about thirty tons and filled a room. Today silicon chip equivalent weighs a fraction of gramme and would disappear on your fingernail.Once designed, a silicon chip can be ludicrously cheap to manufacture in bulk. That iswhy everyone can now buy for peanuts such sophisticated gadgets as pocket calculators or complex TV games. Desk-top computers are as familiar as desk-top typewriters.Not only is the silicon chip small and ever more inexpensive, it is also reliable and immensely versatile. Already the world market is estimated at £3 billion a year. By the
mid-2000s, one chip-maker predicts, every person in the world may need to own at least one microprocessing toy just to an outlet for the industry's burgeoning supply.Such talk is typical of the increasingly extravagant claims being made on behalf of the silicon chip. It has been called the most significant invention since wheel. A single chipcan far outstrip the mathematical speed and capacity of any man. Multi-chip computers can perform a million error-free calculations in the time it takes to blink andthey're getting faster all the time. All that is holding them back is the speed at which data can be programmed in, or applications for them found.More and more small firms take advantage of small, purpose- programmed computersto keep the books. Instrumentation on cars gets neater and more comprehensive. Telephones have increased international capability, telephone and television-linked information systems are more comprehensive and more wide-spread. Cameras get smaller and more automated, fun toys like talking calculators and programmable videogadgets fight for the home entertainment market. Money continues to give way to computerised accounting and debiting systems, all kinds of security systems are rapidly advanced. Shops keep track of their stock with micro-processing systems, all kinds of traffic control has become more efficient, less energy is wasted by better power systems.The previous century, in short, certainly saw a gathering pace in the applied use of silicon ships but there is not the remotest chance that applications will keep pace with theoretical development. The long-term effects of the micro-processing revolution are incalculable - even for a silicon chip.The most talked-about social implication is, of course, the effect of ever more sophisticated automation on employment. Here, too, there has been a marked tendency to take off into scare mongering with exaggerated claims that silicon chips will cause overnight disruption, making millions redundant. A study by the UK Central Policy Review Staff is characteristically sober: "Reports suggesting large-scale loss of jobs from micro-processing applications overestimate the speed at which these