Tech Industry

Commentary: Superchips are coming, but what to do with them?

Designing a chip with 400 million transistors is a major challenge, unless most of the device is just memory, which seems to be a waste of technology.

By Martin Reynolds, Gartner Dataquest Analyst

The laboratory achievements Intel is unveiling Monday at the IEEE International Electron Devices conference, combined with other developments, remove any doubt about the viability of manufacturing near-atomic-scale elements.

See news story:
Intel, IBM put chip development in fast lane
This advancement, in turn, will allow manufacturers to build computer chips with perhaps 10 times the number of transistors as today's most advanced microprocessors.

However, mass-production of these tiny devices will require some further advances in manufacturing technology. Design is also an issue. Designing a chip with 400 million transistors is a major challenge, unless most of the device is just memory, which seems to be a waste of technology. The design goal should be not just to pile more memory onto the chip but to be able to execute instructions more swiftly and to perform more complex functions.

The prospect of such powerful chips also raises the issue of how all that horsepower will be used. State-of-the-art microprocessors are already within sight of being able to perform real-time compression of motion video at high quality, the last conventional processing challenge. Productivity applications have shown no real advances with performance past about 500 MHz, raising the question: What exactly will we do with all this processing power?

There are several possibilities. Pattern-matching technologies, including speech, face and gesture recognition exist today but are somewhat rudimentary in nature. We need faster processors and better software to make them work, and progress over the last few years has been very encouraging.

Another opportunity is more robust software that would use processor cycles to second-guess the programmer's thoughts and prevent system crashes. Such a technique would allow for faster development of new applications.

Finally, more processing power could give us new programming techniques that will speed the integration of complex systems, helping the industry to deliver on the integrative capabilities of the Internet.

(For related commentary on chipmakers, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

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