Federico Faggin: “We’re people, machines will not replace us”

Interview with the inventor of the microprocessor and touch screen on the important lessons of technology and its future, and on the rebirth of Milan. 

This article was originally published on Domus 1057, May 2021. 

“As I see it, things will not be exactly the way they were before, even though our human tendency is to go back and do the same things we’ve always done. We’ve learned some important lessons, like the more or less smart use of IT enabling us to work from home, something that would hardly have been possible 20 years ago. After the emergency, this will still be important for flexibility and productivity. Italy has benefited by it in particular, after lagging in these respects. At the same time, we have to understand what really happened, to get to the root of the problem. Why are there such powerful viruses? How can we respond in the future to a possible attack from another virus or its mutation? Why did it happen? On this point, I’m far more sceptical and worried, because I don’t know whether we’re ready yet to really see things the way they are. For instance, it would be a disaster if we had to get vaccinated every year.” Federico Faggin speaks calmly, putting the pauses in the right places, especially when he talks about the digital world, our second nature which is becoming our first. This reflection perhaps derives from the fact that he knows what he is saying, since he invented two of the pillars of the digital revolution, the microprocessor and the touch screen. 

Federico Faggin at fourteen, in 1956, with a model glider he designed and built in Vicenza. Photos courtesy of Federico Faggin

“I’ve spent my life working ten hours a day, often even Saturdays and Sundays, looking for solutions to the technical and scientific problems that fascinated me. My father always said that, at the age of five, I ran to him disconsolately saying: ‘Pa, I want to invent things, but they’ve all been invented already!’ I began at an early age to take apart objects to see how they were made and build new ones out of pieces of scrap. Then, one day, I saw a model plane flying and I was dazzled.” Faggin was born to a professor of history and philosophy at the classical high school in Vicenza, who had written 40 very learned books and translated Plotinus’ Enneads. His father was taken aback when he said he wanted to enrol in an industrial-technical institute to learn how to build aircraft. By pure chance, however, the institute had closed its aeronautics track and so Faggin was forced to opt for radio technology. “As soon as I finished school, they took me on at Olivetti, back then the most advanced company in Italy. There I realised how the world turned. If you’ve got new ideas and you’re not an engineer, you’re not taken seriously. So I went back to my father and said that I wanted to give up the job and study physics at university. ‘You’re crazy? You’re earning more than I am.’ It was true. He was afraid I wouldn’t make it, because some of his best students had tried and given up. I graduated cum laude.” 

The move to America was purely by chance. Faggin was taken on by SGS, a company in Agrate Brianza that held a licence for integrated circuits from Fairchild, the world’s most advanced semiconductor company, based in Palo Alto. So, in December 1967, he was offered a six-month exchange programme for engineers. “In February 1968, my wife Elvia and I landed in the Santa Clara Valley in full bloom. Silicon Valley at the time was an immense expanse of market gardens and orchards.” It was the start of an extraordinary adventure, which Intel’s top management immediately realised when they looked this apparently shy lad from the Venetian countryside in the face. It was 1970, computers were huge and they were worked by bulky, slow and expensive transistors. Faggin created a microprocessor or “a computer with a modicum of intelligence, small, cheap, that used little energy and was reliable”. It was a revolution, which made possible not only this interview, but also the cell phone over which we are talking about Milan, which remains “the most advanced, most international city, of which there are not many in Italy. Above all, in the last ten years, I’ve seen its rebirth, I’ve been positively surprised. I see it as a social and architectural model for other Italian cities, which ought to be inspired by whatever good they’ve got and let go of what is not as good. Moving towards the future.” 

An exemplar of the Programma 101, Olivetti's programmable calculator launched in 1965.

In this respect, Faggin’s ideas are clear. “Digital technologies will continue to advance with great speed and acceleration, as we have already seen, especially by moving into the area of artificial intelligence and robotics with all the resulting applications. But some promises can’t be fulfilled, at least not in the near future. Take the driverless car. We won’t be seeing that for at least 20 years. But it’s going to be a very important change because the transport ecosystem will be disrupted by electric cars that drive themselves even in cities, letting you fall asleep in one and ringing a bell when you reach the office. The potential to do all this exists, but not to replace people. In this I see a disconnect between many players, especially in the media, who fail to understand what people really are. We needn’t be afraid of artificial intelligence, because we’ll have more even smarter machines, but only in the sense that they’ll accelerate our automatic processes, not our understanding, not our intuition, not our sensibility that comes from consciousness.” Faggin smiles and wraps it up, after expressing words of hope for the future: “I don’t know what will happen, but I hope people will learn to cooperate instead of competing. Cooperation is essential to tackle climate change, corruption and poverty at a planetary level. We’re people, not machines, and what makes us different are our conscience and values. Let’s hope we always remember that.”

Opening Image: Federico Faggin (first to the left) with two electronic experts at Olivetti. 

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