Wednesday, 15 March 2006

The Silicon Eye – George Gilder ****

There’s a particular breed of book most often found on the business shelves – it’s a sort of business biography, where the central focus is the business itself, but we get to understand it and where it’s come from by following the lives of the key people involved. This is really one of those business bios, rather than a popular science book, it just happens that a couple of the key figures, notably Carver Mead, were scientists and academics, so it strays over into the world of science – and that’s not a bad thing as it’s a well-told story that is of real interest to anyone with an eye for technology.
One of the attractive aspects of this book is the way the key personnel aren’t everyday names. As well as Carver Mead we meet Dick Merrill, Federico Faggin and Dick Lyon – for most of us, by now it’s a matter of “Who?” But then does anyone really want yet another book on Bill Gates. The technology that we see first appear as a mental seed, then gradually becomes reality as the key characters grow to maturity, is the imaging chip for a digital camera – but a very special chip, one that at the time of writing is still not widely used. Most of the digital cameras around in 2005, when this was written. were based on chips where a single sensor on the chip handles only one colour, and the overall picture is put together by interpolating between adjacent sensors – there’s always an element of guesswork, rather than a true representation. The chip produced by our starring crew ditches this idea. Instead, every tiny sensor specifies an actual colour, in principle rendering a much clearer, more accurate result.
Along the way, there is a long, long dalliance with artificial intelligence, particularly neural networks. Many companies found that it was much easier to promise a lot with AI than to do anything, and for a long time there seems to have been lots of theorizing and playing with neural nets and analogue circuitry without getting anywhere in particular. It’s interesting that the only real achievement of this middle period of the book was when the group dropped almost all their interests, using the skills they had but hardly anything from their development work, and came up with the industry’s leading touchpad for laptops.
Finally, though, comes what should be the triumph of this tale – the development of the camera sensor that can blow everything else out of the water. It’s cheaper to make, easier to push up to much higher pixel levels, and because each pixel captures all colours, rather than one of the primary colours, produces an incomparably clear image. And yet, for the moment, this killer technology has not swept the board. It’s tempting to compare the position of our heroes’ device and the inferior camera sensors most of us still use with the old chestnut of VHS versus Betamax, where the technically less able system triumphed – but it’s a very different position, and Gilder doesn’t fall into that trap. Where VHS and Betamax were on a more even footing, both backed by major corporations, and the balance was largely swung by the movie rental business, the camera sensor position is very different. Here we have all the big players on the one side, and the tiny opposition with the better technology on the other.
It’s not a foregone conclusion. Dyson did it with vacuum cleaners, taking on everyone else as a little player with superior technology. But vacuum cleaners don’t have the huge scale and ultra-fast product cycle of digital cameras and mobile phone cameras. Although the big players’ technology isn’t as good, they can throw so much weight at their products that they can keep prices down, can keep whittling away at the differential in ability, and can add all the bells and whistles that are more important in selling a camera to an average customer than is perfect image reproduction. The fight isn’t over and the result still hangs in the balance. To the unbiased reader, it seems likely that Goliath is going to beat David.
One minor moan is George Gilder’s tone which is relentlessly perky to the extent that occasionally you want to tell him to just get on with it. For example, he can’t just say that Dick Lyon borrowed the motor from his mother’s blender to help make a panoramic camera. Instead we’re told: “With the mixer blades removed, its speed could be varied, and it would not grind, blend, mince or chop his fingers.” Whoa, who’d have thought of removing the blades, and it stopping him from hurting himself… But it is only a minor thing – often Gilder’s tone is chatty and enjoyable, it only occasionally plunges over the edge.
At the heart of this book is one of the most pervasive technologies around, one with real technical fascination and with some interesting (and occasional tortured) individuals on a journey to develop a different approach. It’s a journey you will enjoy being part of.
Review by Brian Clegg

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