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Transistors and Rice Grains – A Tipping Point

Transistors and Rice Grains – A Tipping Point

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The Transistor Revolution

Most of us were not aware that in 2004 a dramatic tipping point was finally reached. Finally, humans made more transistors than the number of grains of rice that they grew for the first time. 

Dear Reader, a transistor is not a radio! Instead, transistors are semiconductor devices that are the fundamental building blocks of all electronic circuits. They are found in every electronic device we use – from mobile phones and computers to the inside of refrigerators and also in various electronic parts of a car.

Globally over 100 million trillion (that is a 1 followed by 20 zeros) transistors are made each year. However, they are now so miniaturized that an astonishing 50 billion are placed in one “integrated circuit” that is itself a small part of an entire electronic device. 

The first working transistor was built at the famous Bell Labs in the US in 1947 by physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley. All three got the Nobel prize in 1956. Initially, only 3 or 4 transistors were used in one radio and in specialized communication devices. However, the technology for making transistors however kept improving and as per Moore’s law, the number of transistors on a microchip kept doubling every two years.

A Brief History of Rice

Humans first domesticated wild rice around 8,000 to 13,000 years ago. Rice is now the world’s largest food crop. The two main types grown are Oryza sativa (Asian rice) and Oryza glaberrima (African rice). Together these two rice strains provide nourishment for billions of humans worldwide.

Rice became the pre-dominant staple for over 3 billion people, mostly in Asia and parts of Africa. It was unknown in the Americas until Columbus first crossed the Atlantic ocean. It is now also grown and eaten, especially in South America. In the Australian continent, rice is imported in large quantities.

The technology for growing rice has improved dramatically, including via India’s green revolution in the 1960s. In India, the yield of rice is on average 2.7 thousand kilograms per hectare, but there is vast room for improvement. Rice yields in many other countries are in excess of 7.0 thousand kilograms per hectare – more than double the yield in India. Much of this improvement will come from better agricultural practices and water management and – and most critically – using new genetic techniques discovered using computer programs. Behind this computing power, of course, are transistors.  

Transistors and Rice

In 2010 Fortune magazine writer Geoff Colvin wrote, “The world produced about 10 quintillion transistors in 2009, which is 250 times more than all the grains of rice consumed. For the price of a single grain of rice, a retail shopper can buy about 125,000 transistors.” This summarizes the fantastic revolution that has occurred. With new genetic engineering technologies (based on the use of transistors inside computers), we are developing new food sources. It is not science fiction to see a future where food production is automated using electronic devices full of transistors. Transistors and rice are both now equally critical to our lives!

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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