A high-tech pioneer reflects on the digital revolution

Federico Faggin says he never foresaw the changes the microprocessor would bring

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The man who led the design and development of the first microprocessor 40 years ago said that, at the time, he didn't foresee the extent of the digital revolution he was helping to create.

Frederico Faggin
"I've been surprised to see the impact the microprocessor has had on society, particularly on work," said its designer, Frederico Faggin.

Today, Frederico Faggin envisions a future where quantum and cognitive computing are widely used, but he said there's no way to foresee the amazing changes to the way we work and live that technological evolution will bring in another 40 years.

"At the time, I clearly understood that it was a revolutionary idea," said Faggin, who designed the microprocessor and led the first microprocessor development project at Intel in 1970. "However, I did not imagine how many new applications it would open up.... I've been surprised to see the impact the microprocessor has had on society, particularly on work. When you walk through an office, you'll see a computer on every desk. You have a very powerful computer literally at your fingertips with your cellphone. We have been affected in ways I certainly did not imagine."

Intel 4004
The Intel 4004

Born in Italy in 1941, Faggin (pronounced Fa-jeen) worked at Fairchild Semiconductor in the late 1960s, leading the invention of silicon gate technology and designing the world's first commercial integrated circuit to use that technology. In 1970, he went to work at Intel where he led the work on the Intel 4004, the first commercially available microprocessor, which helped to kick-start the digital revolution. The 40th anniversary of the release of the Intel 4004 was last week.

In 1996, Faggin was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. In 1997 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize, and in 2009, he was a recipient of the National Medal for Technology and Innovation from President Barak Obama.

Today, he is chairman emeritus of Synaptics Inc., a company that develops user interface products, which he co-founded in 1986. He also studies consciousness, which he says is the "the last frontier" in understanding information processing.

But even with all of his awards and achievements, Faggin says he's still amazed by the evolution that the microprocessor began.

"I imagined that people would have a computer to do computation at their desks, particularly engineers so they could do their work more effectively than on a slide rule," he said in an interview with Computerworld. "But a personal computer which over the years does more than computation and word processing? A personal computer where you have a multimedia type of environment and a window to connect to the Web? I did not imagine that."

Faggin, who says he loves his Lenovo laptop and uses an Apple iPhone and an iPad, said the creation and growth of the Internet was another phenomenon he did not expect.

"The way it has transformed our lives was just unthinkable 40 years ago," he added. "What does it mean when you have 2 billion or 3 billion people interconnected? What does it create? That I certainly could not imagine."

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