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Lapsing of Moore's Law opens up opportunity in chip design

Agam Shah | Aug. 28, 2013
DARPA microsystems chief asks engineers to look forward, redesign conventional chips.

One approach to consider might be separating the instruction set architecture, microarchitecture, circuits, functional blocks and other parts now integrated onto a chip, and tweaking them for specific applications, Colwell said.

"I think the end of Moore's Law opens the door to designing special-purpose things again," Colwell said, adding that in the 1970s, one could make specialized floating point arrays with vector processors. DARPA is doing research in the areas of quantum computing, nanotechnology and distributed computing, he said.

Researchers at universities and chip companies are also looking at new materials to replace silicon, and also advanced manufacturing technologies. Colwell said that the new technologies are far from practical implementation, and chip makers will have to rely on technologies like CMOS, which has no practical replacement in sight.

"CMOS is really good stuff," Colwell said. "There are [only] two or three [new technologies] that are promising at all. It's just hard to beat CMOS."

Some ways to buy performance in the meanwhile could be through the use of new materials, photonics, optics and 3-D stacking, in which transistors are placed on top of each other.

Outside of the computer industry, the auto industry will feel the biggest impact of the end of Moore's Law, Colwell said. The last 30 years of innovation in cars such as navigation systems, antilock breaks, guidance systems and others have all been driven by semiconductors.

"I think that's really cool but all of it is based on computers. If we stall out, what are they going to do differently from generation to generation?" Colwell said. "I think they have been living off the electronics for the last 20 to 30 years, and if we don't continually feed them huge increases, it's not clear what they will do next."

Colwell also threw a dart at his former employer, Intel, where he was the chief architect for all Pentium chips.

"Intel is terrible at anticipating. They don't look down the road and say 'five years from now the rules will be different, I need to react today, I'm going to put some bets on the table'. There's some of that, but not a lot. But what they are really good at is reacting," said Colwell.


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