I am wondering what would happen if humans could no longer manufacture high-end computer processors. I am thinking about still being able to create processors similar to those used in space crafts, which are way less capable than their earth-bound counterparts. For convenience, let's assume we cannot make any CPU more capable than what we had before 1985.

Please ignore the question of how this situation would come to pass. If necessary, I'll ask about that in a separate question. I specifically want to know how society would react to the inability to manufacture modern CPUs.


closed as too broad by Aify, L.Dutch, sphennings, Amadeus, Tim B Sep 2 '17 at 16:46

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  • $\begingroup$ Super solar flare? But it's a one time event and humanity should be on the road to a full recovery. How bout thinning of continental plates so that it doesn't stay buoyant and sinks into the magma... that's won't occur for at least billions of years base on existing plate destruction rate. Only options, GRB, big asteroid impacts, biblical flood, perfect greenhouse, alien invasion, zombie and nuclear holocaust, those much little known such as cosmic strings, false vac.. nevermind. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Sep 2 '17 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 Really! You can do better than this. None of those will degrade high performance processor chips. Wipe life off the face of the Earth, yes, but no good for specifically ruining computer performance. $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 2 '17 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ Since I have received two downvotes (for now), it is clear that I can improve my question. How can I do that? $\endgroup$ – Alexei Sep 2 '17 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with the question is that it's very broad, you're asking about all the possible consequences. Are we talking financial? Society? Military? Are we talking about existing computers still working or all crushing overnight? Your question seems to imply that no more can be made, but then later on says that existing ones also stop working. Basically there are just so many possible answers it's impossible to know what is a good answer. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 2 '17 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB - yes, now it is clear that it is too broad. I have edited it to narrow its scope and hopefully make it more clear and answerable (although I have already received great answers). $\endgroup$ – Alexei Sep 2 '17 at 17:06

I cannot find a reasonable way to obtain such a scenario

If you're willing to use a bit of artistic license: Pick an important-but-obscure chemical like Germanium or Gallium. Say the entire supply was destroyed - maybe it only occurs in one place, and rogue states destroyed it?

Or take some historical industrial health problem like ethylene glycol ethers, fictionalise a Chernobyl scale accident, and claim the safe alternatives just couldn't perform as well.

However, it would be interesting to know how humans could deal when standard processors can no longer be manufactured.

For day-to-day home use, a lot of the power of modern computers is spent on making things look nice and providing abstractions that cut software development costs. You and I could exchange this message just as well over teleprinters.

So things like banks and electronic payment networks could survive; the terminals used in shops would get simpler, and banks could maintain their centralised systems for a long time by making their software more efficient and buying up old computers on ebay (where they would presumably become a valuable commodity)

There would be a few years of great business for companies that sell prints of your digital photographs, sell physical maps, and things like that.

I suspect people might retain something similar to personal computers, as for a lot of stuff having people do things online is more efficient than mail or phone. That might take the form of a shift to 'dumb terminals' with time-sharing access to 'mainframes' although they might be re-named to 'cloud desktops' or something.

As the vintage, high-performance equipment got older resources would get more constrained, as the chips we were able to make would cost more per unit performance. We might not be able to use all the bandwidth of high-bandwidth undersea cables. I suspect that would lead us to a more austere, hierarchical replacement for the internet. No more videos or photos posted to social media by hurricane survivors - perhaps only major news organisations would have access to that much bandwidth.

There would be political and business implications for this stuff, of course - expensive bandwidth would increase the power of the press and those who own/control them; and a move towards mainframes would make snooping and industrial espionage easier.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for providing a realistic factor that could stop manufacturing of processors. Indeed, semiconductor metals may become unavailable and clearly affecting processor fabrication. $\endgroup$ – Alexei Sep 2 '17 at 15:58

So the modern processor requires very very high accuracy manufacturing. Feature size is on the order of 14nm, with companies finally approaching the 10nm over the past half year or so. Compare that to CPU's from the 2000's which had feature size of 250nm. Go back further and they get bigger and bigger. If you go back far enough, there was a change from TTL levels (5v) to CMOS (1.2v).

Why are these important? Because it allows us to cut off technology at any arbirary level. Tee smaller the die size and the lower the voltage limits, the more susceptible the chip is toe external electromagnetic noise[citation needed]. As a result, you could say "increased sunspot activity knocks out everything back to TTL level processors" and have it be somewhat believable. However, many people will point out that a modern computer is a metal box - essentially a Faraday cage that will protect it's internals from external electromagnetic noise. It's also likely that most microchip manufacturers will have heavily shielded facilities where they produce them. Military tech equipment is also typically able to withstand much higher levels of external noise, so it would be extremely hard to say "every chip."

Another possibility is a handwaved 'change in quantum properties' of silicon. Modern CPU's are studies in practice of various quantum effects (a silicon atom is 0.2nm, so the a 10nm transistor is only 5x5 atoms!). I imagine that a small change to these properties could have a devastating effect on modern technology while leaving everything else relatively unaffected. However, this would probably wipe out every processor.

So what would happen? Well, modern engineering would fall apart in an extremely rapid fashion. Most modern engineering techniques require sophisticated analysis. Several decades ago people did this by hand, now they do it using computers and as a result, people would have to re-discover the techniques the previous engineers used. (possibly including slide rules and log tables, but mainly the various heuristics and 'good enough' approach). This would mean that current things like ships and aircraft would be the last designs for several years. Many can still be produced, but work on new ones would halt.

Some operating technologies will fail. Many are protected against EMF, but if it is powerful enough anything from aircraft fly-by-wire systems to nuclear reactor controls could be disrupted. These systems are designed to be super-tough, so you'd need a pretty severe situation to knock them offline.

The most significant one is that most people would get bored. I don't think this is a bad thing, but without cellphones and computers to entertain them, and entire generation (or two) who have not developed the skill to entertain themselves will be extremely bored. This may result in an increased crime rate, or in an upsurge of various 'forgotten' hobbies. Couple this with nearly all of modern bureaucracy being computer based, and vast hoards of people who work in a computer industry (eg software engineers, web designers) and you may have soon have a significant incident.

Computer development would stop it it's tracks. We use computers to design computers, and without functioning computers we are sunk. Scientists and engineers would start looking for ways to build replacements. Maybe they'd find it, maybe not. Maybe they'd just find a better form of shielding. Maybe we'd have to go back to vacuum tubes or discrete component computers.


Let's ignore the "how" and focus on the consequences.

Remember that the Apollo spacecraft sent men to the moon with less computational power than you have in your pocket scientific calculator. With 64Kb of total memory and running at a whopping 43KHz ("Kilo-Hertz" ... you should be thinking "AM Radio") and at a time when "threads" was a word that described the shirt on your back they were nevertheless capable of getting them there and back.

But, how would I and/or We react to the sudden loss of our 10-core, 20-thread, 4.5GHz, 128Gb memory Intel i9-7900s?

(1) An entire generation of children would instantly become zombies as their streaming video, streaming audio, and cloud-based games would suddenly stop. The ensuing bloodbath would puzzle archeologists for millenia.

(2) All traffic control for airports and large cities would stop. Insurance companies would be inundated with claims for everything from fender-benders to the obviously-it's-the-airline's-fault death of some 500,000 people. Which will only be staved off by...

(3) The sudden end to all communication. Many homes today don't have POTS telephone connections, which may not matter since all the analog switches were replaced with computer-driven digital services decades ago. No telephones.

(4) Banking would be thrust back into the 1800s. You may not see the mortgage collector for years, but he/she'd show up in an effort to claim your home as an asset for a suddenly defunct bank.

(5) Our educational system would hicup, but catch up fairly quickly. Teachers who have been forced to use old, outdated textbooks would suddenly find themselves the center of attention as those books would be the only books to be had for a while. Once dead newspapers would come back to life as antiquated printing machines were dusted off and reporters would be considered important again.

(6) Not to mention fuel distribution, electrical distribution... the lights might come on (maybe, sucks to be driven by a nuclear power plant... or to live near one...) but the whole world would be sucking wind for a while. The resulting panic would drain every shelf in every store you can imagine. The chaos for the first week would be... impressive...

Except for government. True, the Snowdens and Wikileaks of the world would dry up very quickly, but the clowns would still be in control since their most frequently used technology is their pie holes. You just won't hear about the latest sex scandal that quickly.

How long would this last? Not as long as you think. There are a lot of scientists and engineers in the world, and it wouldn't take long to figure out alternatives that would move us from the 1960s space-race to at least the 80's hay-day of personal computing. (Intel 4040 processors, anyone?)

  • $\begingroup$ No longer being able to manufacture CPUs is very different than all existing CPUs suddenly not functioning $\endgroup$ – user45623 Sep 2 '17 at 11:09

What you ask is pretty much impossible, at least as I understand it; "modern" small processors (equivalent to the very old things used in those ancient probes) use the same technology as the "big brothers", so any change invalidating the latter would render useless also "small" ones.

It is true high integration chips are more sensitive to radiation, but difference, even with ancient TTL technology, is not so high a serious shielding wouldn't suffice.

It is possible to imagine a different universe where very high integration is impossible, for some reason, but having it stop working in our universe seems to need a lot of handwaving.

If something like that happens, somehow, we would have to rethink and redesign many things, from planes to cars, not to speak about all our communication equipment, GPS, smartphones, TV, etc, etc.

Reconversion to older technologies is possible, of course, but it wouldn't be a short or easy process.

A stupid example to clarify: Modern printers are made with cheap plastic because all head positioning errors are computed in real-time by printer controller and "compensated" via software; printers with smaller controllers, unable to do this need much higher quality mechanics.

Something similar is true in almost anything "modern".

If modern Very High Integration electronics fails we would have much deeper problems than being unable to access the Internet.


One solution would be to adopt something like Vernor Vinge does in his A Fire Upon The Deep universe.

He splits his galaxy up into different zones, where different levels of technology only function in particular zones - the further coreward you go, the less high tech you can use. From the unthinking depths near the core, out through our tech levels, to progressively higher tech, out to the godlike high transcend. higher technology brought into lower zones works for a while, then fails, and zone boundaries can shift over time, or star's motion take them from one zone to another.

He doesn't try and come up with an explanation as to why this is - it's just there as part of the background of the setting. The lead in to the story tells you about the setup, and the story itself is a good one - but the underpinning is just there and he doesn't try and justify it; it's just there as part of the setting.

So i'd suggest just presenting the failure as a background fact - you don't have to explain to the reader how or why it happens (Though you want to be consistent and logical in what's affected, to keep it believable), and there's no necessity for the people in your world to figure out exactly why either. Cover the occurence - gradual or rapid - and how the world reacts to it, if you want to - but once it's happened it's happened, and people have to live with and react to it. Don't get diverted from the story you want to tell by feeling compelled to explain everything about the setup.


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