Into the Gildercosm

Justin Hibbard

George Gilder recently stopped by for a visit. You may remember him from the telecom bubble when his bullish newsletter, Gilder Technology Report, could goose stock prices. That hot streak came to a humbling end, as Gary Rivlin adroitly chronicled in this 2002 Wired story. But indomitable George is back, and he's worked up about the semiconductor industry. His language is as messianic as ever. Forget the telecosm. Get ready for the "planetary sensorium."

By that, Gilder means a world dotted with billions of interconnected imaging sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. A camera chip in every dark alley. An RFID tag on every piece of merchandise. Data whizzing around the globe to be correlated with other data. No crime unseen. No movement of goods undetected.

Right off the bat, let's deal with the obvious: privacy.

Gilder: "Most of human history occurred in small villages where there were periodically wildfire rumors that ended in someone being burned as a witch. All this stuff makes it possible to document that you didn't commit the crime."

Me: Okay, but do I want the government in my business?

Gilder: "A lot of people have what I regard as the egocentric idea that the government is constantly interested in everything they do. This is a delusion. But from time to time, you do actually want to know what people are doing. This technology makes that possible and preserves the privacy that's most important to most of us, which is our ability to live and be free."

Me: I'm living free right now without a camera peeking in my shorts, but I get the point.

Some background on Gilder's politics. Back in the '80s, he wrote a popular book on supply-side economics, Wealth & Poverty, which was a favorite of the Reagan administration. A liberal professor of mine at U.C. Berkeley once devoted a whole lecture to tearing the book apart. I remember finding W&P predictably conservative but not as outrageous as the prof made out. But hey, I was more interested in girls and The Replacements back then.

Anyway, Gilder believes ubiquitous chip-dom is about to materialize because of changes in the economics of the semiconductor business. "The old semiconductor industry was based on abundant power," he says. "Now, we're in an environment where power is the key scarcity. Every performance metric is governed by watts it consumes. It's not bit per second. It's bit per second per watt for everything."

According to this new paradigm, RFID chips are "more powerful than a Pentium," Gilder declares. Whereas the Pentium uses about 80 watts, an RFID chip uses microwatts to power a processor, memory, and radio transmissions. That's quite a feat in a world where low power consumption determines value.

Lots of ideas about cheap, low-power chips were developed by CalTech professor Carver Mead and his students. Gilder has a new book, The Silicon Eye, about Mead's latest VC-backed startup, Foveon, which makes the kind of imaging chips that would be ubiquitous in Gilder's global panopticon. One of Mead's students, Chris Diorio, founded a VC-backed RFID company that Gilder likes: Impinj. Check out the book if you want a complete tour of the Gildercosm.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.