Tell us about yourself
I’ve installed my first open source operating system, OpenBSD, and wrote my first C-code, when I was 9 years old, back when I was growing up in Switzerland.
I was inspired by the idea of a sentient computer (Artificial General Intelligence) controlling a robot with the shell of a Pontiac Trans-Am, being a hero and championing the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, after watching Knight Rider.
But like with all children, when you grow up, you gotta realize that the Easter bunny and Santa ain’t real.
For me accepting that KITT wasn’t a reality (yet), was probably more painful, than the realization that Santa doesn’t exist, for an average child, who doesn’t have a measured IQ of over 140, and believed into those obviously impossible beings in the first place.
My reaction was, that I swore to myself, that I’d become the best hacker and engineer possible, so that I become capable of building KITT, the greatest hero of all times, for real, so I’ve dedicated my life to that goal.
Back in Switzerland, that wasn’t possible however, because the degree of creative freedom, and the jobs available for an engineer are very limited there, and developing even simple machines, is way too expensive.
I had to venture to China, where I gathered practical experience with engineering over many years, until, due to unrests in Hong Kong, where our lab was located and also some personal conflicts, as well as a lack of funding, forced me to move to south Europe.
It was a long hard journey, with lots of emotional and physical pain involved, surviving despite the odds, and growing with every problem, while getting my believe only enforced, that the world needs a hero like KITT to be real.
24 years later, I’ve now not only mastered material science skills, which allowed me to design my own open source semiconductor manufacturing process, LibreSilicon (https://libresilicon.com), but I also made lots of progress in the field of AI research and robotics, which I plan to focus more on, as soon as LibreSilicon takes off more than it already has, and has a life on its own, which doesn’t require my permanent involvement.
I was asked to mention some of my social media at this point of the article, so for starters I’ve got a Twitter handle as well as a LinkedIn profile, as well as a YouTube channel where I have videos talking about science, politics and pop-culture.
I also run a self-hosted Fediverse instance, which you can find here: https://mastodon.libresilicon.com/@leviathan
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
It’s the oldest HR question in the book, but lets outline a bit here.
Long term I hope that I can make enough money with some of my side-hustles, so that I can afford some small homestead somewhere here in south Europe, so that I can focus on my research, while enjoying the peace and quietness, with the only noises being the wind, the sound of the water being pumped around by my autonomous, self-managing, AI-driven aquaponics system, and maybe the noise of the motors in my vertical aquaponics farm, when the AI deems another piece of vegetable ready to be harvested… and maybe the sound of some baby goats in pajamas hopping around.
I hope that with all the progress I made in the field of engineering, in all the areas I’ve been active so far, that I might not only be able to build a virtually indestructible sentient car in my barn, but can also use the technology for automatizing food production to a degree, where I could feed an entire village or maybe even city with virtually no costs involved, essentially solving world hunger once and for all.
What problem does the project solve?
LibreSilicon actually solves multiple, very existential problems.
For starters, the issue with various intelligence agencies, like the NSA, Mossad and maybe even the Chinese Intelligence Agencies putting hardware back doors into consumer products.
I’m not comfortable with running my smartphone on not only software, which is probably bugged already by the NSA and only the gods (Eris, Zeus, etc… Yes. I’m a worshiper of the ancient Greek gods) know, what other nosy spying agencies, but even the system on chip itself… not to mention my future hero KITT, because I don’t want him to get hacked either!
So I decided to make a process standard for manufacturing semiconductors, which allows to trace the entire manufacturing process from the Verilog/VHDL/Chisel through the RTL down to the transistor layout level and visual verification of the physical product.
I knew from the get go, when I lost access to NFF, that my access to lab equipment would be gone for good, because a lack of cooperation from people in power all over Europe was the reason, I had to go to China in the first place.
But you know, you enjoy it as long as it’s lasting. Carpe diem.
That’s my google photos drive with all the pictures from the clean room back in Hong Kong, nice memories of lots of successful builds: https://photos.app.goo.gl/YeZZYWzq5jVN4WCCA
For now we’re relying on Skywater for our tape-outs and are right now porting our original PearlRiver test wafer to the Skywater platform in cooperation with the MIT, eFabless, Google and NIST.
But besides shutting out nosy spying agencies from your smartphone, and giving you back the control over your own data, giving you back the privacy you’ve been continuously loosing, even with a higher pace ever since 9/11, due to the “patriots”-act, LibreSilicon also solves another problem, which is actually at the root of the prior one: Monopolies
Back doors in chips are only possible, because the amount of foundries in the world can be counted on a hand or two, and considering that those foundries are located in a few countries, those countries can use the power of the state to bully those manufacturers into putting the back doors into their products, the feds from the respective countries desire to have in there.
By democratizing and decentralizing semiconductor manufacturing the governments lose their death grip over that industry and their government overreach becomes impractical.
We can see it happen with 3D printers and decentralized currencies like BitCoin, which render all attempts by the government at controlling the currency or weapons (through gun control) futile.
I desire to achieve the same with LibreSilicon, for semiconductors, taking the power out of the hands of government and putting it back into the hands of the people.
More Liberty is my solution to everything, hence the name LibreSilicon
We always were only a few people in the team and the only person who always stuck around in the team, besides me of course, while everyone came and went, was Hagen (https://www.linkedin.com/in/hagen-sankowski-14300910)
He and I designed the first version of the Pearl River test wafer, which I then manufactured in the clean room in Hong Kong and held up into the air during a talk at the Chaos Communication Congress.
From that moment on, we got a huge influx of new members, of the team, but Hagen and I stood the most active.
Another member of our team, who’s now very actively involved, especially in the area of coordination and organizing funding, is Philipp Gühring.
Thanks to him, we’ve got now all the networking to Skywater, the MIT and Google, and have not only access to some kind of way for taping out our designs, but even better, even funding for it!
The role of NGI
Funding is of course a recurring topic, when it comes to hardware projects, because unless code, with hardware, especially semiconductors, you can’t just edit your code and recompile.
Every change in the hardware design means, that you’ve got to make a new layout, send it to the foundry and wait until your shuttle run went through, which means bugs can only be fixed in a 6 months interval or so.
One issue we encountered while dealing with NGI is the milestone based payment, which makes a lot of sense when dealing with software, but less so, when dealing with hardware, because your achievement of milestones is based on the factory tape out windows, and payment can only happen in 6 months intervals at best, which doesn’t match well, with the limited time of the road maps in the MoUs, which is the reason why the software based plans were able to claim their budget, while the more hardware focused ones didn’t.
Only now after an amendment I’m able to make at least use of roughly 50% of the finances in the funding.
It’s not the fault of NLNet, but just a result of the fact, that their funding scheme is more software oriented, than it is on hardware projects, where you more often than not have to go like “yeah, well, that ain’t working, lets gonna try it another way, alright”.
I’m looking forward to see, whether NLNet and NGI will introduce some heavily hardware oriented funding scheme in the future, which is more suited for a project like building microchips or a sentient bulletproof crime-fighting car with a dry sense of humor.