The life of Federico Faggin (born 1941 in Italy) is quite fascinating, as described in his book Silicon. He starts out in life as a red hot designer of newly emerging computer technologies, is one of the pioneers of the early years of the modern information revolution, lives his main career in Silicon Valley surfing the waves of new technologies, and yet ultimately comes to realise the limitations of these computer technologies, indeed of the modern materialistic world view. He forms a Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness, realising that it is consciousness that is fundamental, as opposed to the materialism of the prevailing paradigm.
Faggin splits his story into four parts, or lives.
The First Life covers his university education, technical career and marriage in Italy.
In the Second Life he moves to USA, Silicon Valley, and is a key player in SGS Fairchild’s development of silicon gate technology and the first integrated circuit Fairchild 3708. Then he works in the early days of Intel (1103 then 4004 in 1971), and the first single-chip microprocessor (8008 then 8080). After conflicts Federico leaves Intel in 1974.
In his Third Life Federico becomes an entrepreneur, founding Zilog with Ralph Ungermann, funded by Exxon Enterprises, in 1974. This led to the influential Z80 microcontroller. There followed periods with Cygnet Technologies and then Synaptics, where he becomes involved in neural networks and the development of touchpads (1994). Then there is a period with Foveon, developing image sensors – all this is leading edge technology at the time.
Towards the end of this period he has an ‘illumination experience’, which leads to his questioning the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. He comes to the realisation that the materialistic model is inadequate, and he outlines a perspective that is consistent with quantum physics, where consciousness is primary (panpsychism). This leads to the Fourth Life, where, with his wife, he forms the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness (2011).
This is a fascinating story. But a warning is in order at this point. I sort of glazed over much of the technical material in this book, despite understanding a fair bit about the information revolution of the past 50 years. Without such a background you might struggle to make sense of this book.
Yet this is an important story. Ultimately, Federico’s insight into consciousness is the realisation that has come to many of the leading scientific thinkers of the past 100 years, including many of the quantum physicists. A peril for our times is that we embed ourselves ever further into the materialistic paradigm and even give away our free will to those very computers that Federico helped to come to fruition, because we become lost in the glamour of artificial intelligence (which he himself decries). Our very moral purpose and creativity are at stake.
Featured image of Z80 by Chris Whytehead, Chris’s Acorns, via Wikimedia Commons