The dangers of a technology schism appear to have been ignored, as requests have been made to the Biden administration to restrict US made software used to create semiconductors from being sold to Chinese firms and prevent any firms using those tools from selling chips to Chinese companies at or below 14nm (nanometers).

American companies that develop this software (commonly called electronic design automation tools or EDA) dominate the market, and no domestic equivalents exist in China that can match the American products. Also, the restrictions on the size of chips allowed to be sold to Chinese firms would put them in a bind, with all the newest chips being at 14nm or smaller, which would prohibit the most advanced chips.

A schism in standards is the danger of this requested action against China as well as other measures meant to limit Chinese access to technology. If China and the United States and their respective allies go separate ways regarding technology standards, the worldwide engine of innovation will be degraded and countries, companies, and individuals will risk long term costs. Disparate standards would create innumerable difficulties over time. Even worse, should the geopolitical situation change again (and it always does over time) recoupling these standards will be both difficult and expensive. Interconnection of systems, interoperability of silicon, networks, software are all at risk.

Standards play an outsized role

On the surface, standards seem utilitarian but they actually play an outsized role. There are multipliers that come into play in the world of technology, particularly when it comes to computers and software. The biggest multiplier is the effect of many minds working around a particular concept. This multiplier is only possible due to standardization. International standardization efforts mean that certain hardware specifications, software, and protocols can be essentially the same across the world.

Innovations created against these standards can then be derived from companies, universities, even individuals and then generally used or applied on a worldwide basis.

One example is Ethernet, the technology most commonly used for networking, is a standard created and approved by the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and is known broadly as IEEE Standard 802.3. This means that Ethernet products made in the US or China, or anywhere else in the world conform and are essentially interoperable.

This is just one of hundreds of thousands of examples of standards that govern everything in the modern technological framework. From standards springs innovation, because standards bring a consistent market and expectation for customers and help to prevent lock-in to proprietary technology.

Technology schism would make all poorer

Caution needs to be taken when considering how the entire world will develop in terms of technological advancement. It’s easy to think “They go their way, we go ours!” but our modern interconnected society will not be so easily disengaged. The world is connected by the Internet.

Travel has made the entire world smaller. Vast ships move goods across the world in an interconnected system based on standards, albeit not strictly technological standards.

A technological schism would leave everyone on both sides poorer for the loss of pure ideas and innovations that come from access worldwide standards. Such a schism would not only reduce the size of markets for companies across the world, but also limit human advancement.