A Conversation with: Federico Faggin, Inventor of the First Commercial Microprocessor

This is an updated version of my conversation with Federico Faggin, which was initially published August 31, 2016. You can you view the original here if you want to take a look at how The Conversationalist has changed over the last year! Please enjoy.

Forty-six years ago, Federico Faggin produced an innovation that revolutionized technology for decades to come. Now, he is proposing a model that will make you rethink the fabric of our universe. What is the next subject for this innovative powerhouse to tackle?

It’s difficult to fathom what this next frontier could be, so for the time being, let’s re-enter the atmosphere and discuss Faggin’s vast array of accomplishments. He created the world’s first commercial microprocessor, founded two companies, and received the 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

I had the pleasure of meeting Faggin at his home in Silicon Valley to discuss not only these astonishing achievements, but also, what enables him to transcend seemingly axiomatic framework to arrive at technologically and mathematically unprecedented innovations, and how his definitions of fear and success have changed throughout his lifetime.

Faggin beautifully combines emotion, logic, humor, and introspection into his work. His excitement is palpable while discussing the complexities of computers, consciousness, and success; even in the midst of his countless accomplishments, after any one of which most people would kick up their feet and retire, he seems to have an unlimited amount of curiosity and energy.

I suppose this is the real key to Faggin’s success – he is truly motivated by the love of discovery. We certainly got lost in this excitement, for the conversation lasted almost 90 minutes! You can watch the entire video of this discussion here, or watch a 5 minute summary clip:

Listen to the original podcast from this conversation, produced in June, 2016.

Faggin made his mark on the technological world when he led the team that produced the Intel 4004 in 1970-71. This was the world’s first commercial microprocessor. It is highly probable that Faggin’s microprocessor has been a part of your life in some capacity, because it was the main engine of the computer up until about the last decade. 

It is astonishing to consider, especially in the midst of such staggering technological change and advancement, that Faggin’s microprocessor was unrivaled for nearly 40 years. This technology harnessed the power of the first electronic computer built, which was large enough to fill a room, into a chip the size of a little fingernail.  

What enabled such a jump in performance and decrease in size? Faggin describes how using polysilicon instead of aluminum was the key.

“With that I was able to achieve about five times the speed, for the same power dissipation in half the size of the transistor. So, all of a sudden we had a factor of ten technology much more powerful than what was there before.”

The technological community welcomed this innovation, and within five years, it was adopted by the entire industry. Faggin explains that his, and subsequent developments, exemplify the theory known as Moore’s law.  

According to Intel.com, Moore’s law is the prediction that computing will increase in power and decrease in cost at an exponential pace. Technically speaking, the law posits that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles approximately every two years.

This expansive jump in power and decrease in size with the Intel 4004 revolutionized technology for years, but did Faggin recognize the impact it would have on the trajectory of technological development?

“Yes, I did. When you have something that is ten times better than something else, you have something! I mean, I was a kid but I was not stupid.”

It is fitting that he had such confidence in his creation, because as he said to me, “I had the desire, with this technology, to be second to none.”

And he did just that.

Faggin expanded on his already monumental work with microprocessors to start Zilog, the first company completely dedicated to microprocessors. He served as the CEO of both Zilog and Synaptics, the latter of which created the early touchpads and touchscreens used in our mobile devices.

After sparking a technological revolution and working in the business world, Faggin embarked on a journey to redefine the fundamental framework upon which our universe is constructed. In the process, he and his wife founded the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation for the study of consciousness.

Faggin has been fascinated with human consciousness for much of his life because it represents the limitations of artificial intelligence. Especially with modern robots increasingly resembling human mannerism and speech (think Sofia), it may appear that the lines between technology and human are becoming obfuscated.

He interrogated these lines by exploring how one might construct a conscious computer. He found that although computers were getting more and more technically intricate, there were no advancements towards constructing a conscious machine.

Partly, this may be due to varied conceptions of what consciousness is. Faggin defines it as the intersection of perception, free-will, action, identity, and comprehension. The following is an excerpt from his website in which he clarifies the meaning of these elements:

  • Perception is the capacity to have a sensate or sentient experience, what philosophers call quale (the plural is qualia). Quale is what something feels like; for example, the smell of a rose or the taste of wine as specific sensations or feelings. We experience the world through qualia, but qualia are not patterns of bits in memory, far from it.

    • Comprehension is the capacity to have an integrated understanding of our experience within the widest possible context. It is the capacity to capture the meaning of what is experienced.

    • Identity is the fundamental property of being identified within itself as itself. It’s the ability to discriminate between self and non-self. Identity provides a unique point of view, a sense of agency, and the fundamental context within which perception, comprehension, action and free-will operate and have significance.

    • Free will is the capacity to choose; to decide a specific course of action based on the available comprehension and consistent with the intention and goals of the identity or self. Free will is inextricably connected with the sense-of-self as an autonomous and independent agency.

    • Action is the ability to affect the outer environment based on a free-will decision.

Consciousness, in Faggin’s definition, is so instrumental to all experiences living things have that it is easily overlooked. He relates it to a fish swimming in water; the fish has no conception that she is surrounded in water until she is taken out of it. Likewise, living things do not understand how essential consciousness is to their interactions with the world until they are unable to perform these functions anymore.

He explains, “it is our consciousness that produces feelings, and it is consciousness that gives us the strongest evidence that we are more than machines.”  

For most people, Faggin’s model upsets the traditional conception that matter is the fundamental element of the universe. He does not dispute the existence of matter, but introduces a deeper dimension which precedes the one we have identified for years. He explains how consciousness creates matter, not vice versa. Therefore, consciousness is the underlying base of nature, reality, and the world, before matter. Consider if the energy that created the big bang was conscious – all resulting life would have a foundation of conscious energy as well.

Faggin’s model of consciousness is mathematical at its core. His work presents that consciousness is inseparable from physics or chemistry because it is the very substance both of these studies are built off of.

Ultimately, although this model is mathematically based, it has philosophical implications. Faggin quite literally defines the meaning of life with his model, a moment which left me feeling both exhilarated and skeptical of all of my preconceived notions regarding ontology.   

He states the meaning of life is for consciousness to know itself.

As consciousness is a dynamic, growing thing, this process is never-ending. There are always new experiences to learn from and contribute to the collective consciousness. In Federico’s model, experience is paramount to consciousness’ ability to know itself, and to individual fulfillment.  

“To know yourself you have to experience yourself. That is the whole point! You know, you go to school to get knowledge…knowledge is symbolic. If you don’t understand, you can repeat the words and get an A, and you don’t understand a damn thing of what you’re saying. People don’t put emphasis on meaning, they put emphasis on knowledge. I’m talking about meaning. I’m talking about meaning, I’m talking about what you can actually see about yourself. That you can only have through an experience.”

We discuss the malleability of perception after he explains how physical or external realities are an illusion informed by one’s inner reality. This point left me pondering how one could energetically and confidently interact with a world when she understands it is a fallacy constructed by the senses. Wouldn’t this leave her second guessing all experiences with this world?

However, Faggin explains it is quite the opposite! He is freed by his understanding of what is real and what is not, and he is able to find greater meaning in internal reality as a result. Whereas before he felt he was living in the game of a false reality, now he is able to understand how to play the game and discover its new and exciting elements.

“Before, when I was wedded to a certain worldview, there was more of a sense of unreality at that time than there is now. Now I see myself inside the game. Before it was frustrating not to understand what is going on. Now, it is the pleasure of discovery. It’s an incredible game.”

Faggin had years of instruction in physics encouraging him to see the world in a certain way, making it especially difficult to divorce himself from these teachings and see reality through a unique lens. I wondered how he was able to free himself from these constraints of convention to discover the pervasive nature of consciousness. 

“It was the hardest thing to do – to free myself of a certain way of looking at reality, which is what I learned in school. That’s what physics tells you – it is done this way.”

Yet, through what he describes as transcendent experiences of consciousness, he was able to reveal this other layer of life that was previously hidden to him. Along with this shift in his perception of reality, Faggin’s definitions of fear and success have changed immensely as a result of his experiences. He explains how in order to live one’s life from the inside out, one has to understand fear.

“Fear has to go. But that is a tall order. So how do we do that? You begin by looking inside, looking at the source of the fear, understanding it…fear is energy which is corrupted by misunderstanding. When you understand it you undo the knots. And all of a sudden, you recover your vital energy which is now free to enjoy.”

Faggin explains how if he is fearful and fails to be introspective and address his fears, he cannot make advancements even in his science. The emotional is inextricably tied to the intellectual, and the vital energy used for fear cannot then be directed toward intellectual pursuits. 

This conception of success is not so much tied to material possessions or even intellectual accomplishments as it is to emotional fulfillment. Coming from a man who has revolutionized the technological world, received awards from President Obama, founded companies, and worked on developing mathematical models to reshape the universe, it is so meaningful to hear him say that none of this is the essence of success. Instead, he reflects:

“Success in my life, and I haven’t reached this yet, is just you having a ball in your life. You enjoying your life from the inside, from your own feeling…I would not have defined this the same way 30 years ago. Now I see clearly.”

Faggin is learning how to play the game better, and the ultimate goal of his perceived game of life is joy and emotional fulfillment through experience. After developing mathematical and physics models attempting to prove the fundamental existence of consciousness,  Faggin reminds us all that the most important thing is to live one’s life from the inside out, to value experience above all as a way to better know oneself and allow consciousness to know itself.

Speak to you soon,


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