Expert: Cooperate, or risk hobbling Moore's Law

Energy-efficient bionic ears and smart cars that warn of dangerous drivers. If we want them, business models must change, experts say.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--We are on the verge of a world where all manner of devices will speak to one another wirelessly, but it's going to be a royal pain to put together.

Speakers at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, or ISSCC, on Monday asserted that advances in computing will allow automakers to install intelligent sensors that warn drivers of fast-moving cars in rearview mirrors, and let clothing manufacturers use solar technology to power built-in electronic devices.

Several organizations at the conference will also discuss papers showing how chips can be inserted into brain tissue and how energy-efficient bionic ears can be created for people who are deaf.

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Reaching technological ubiquity, however, will require a massive effort on the part of chip designers and software developers to reduce the power consumption of their devices. Making money won't be easy either.

Hugo De Man, a senior fellow at the Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center in Belgium, said that portable devices--which will serve up MP3 files, video, still pictures and phone calls--will in the future have to contain a microprocessor that performs 100 billion calculations per second (100 gigaops) but consumes only about 1 watt of power. The chips will also have to cost $10 or less each.

"That is two orders of magnitude in power efficiency at one-twentieth the price," he said.

Microprocessors in stationary environments that can feed off of battery power, as in a car, will be able to consume around 10 watts of power but will churn at 1 teraop, or 1 trillion operations per second.

To get to this level, companies are simply going to have to cooperate more. Research will need to be shared, while companies specializing in software will have to team up with hardware companies at the start of product development. In other words, the much-vaunted "horizontal" IT business structure--in which chipmakers, PC manufacturers and software makers work somewhat autonomously--will have to be rethought.

"We can no longer afford the living-apart-together relationship. There is a need for worldwide sharing of interdisciplinary research costs to keep Moore happy," he said, referring to Moore's Law. "Never before has there been so much fun for young engineers."

Nonetheless, the opportunity is large. In another presentation at ISSCC, Daeje Chin, minister of information and communications for South Korea, asserted that radio frequency identification (RFID) tags could become one of the grand drivers of the industry. Semiconductor makers will be popping out 90 billion sensor chips a year by 2010.

"This will probably be the fastest-growth segment over the next decade," he said.

Still, a mask--a circuit pattern for "drawing" circuits on chips--costs about $1.5 million today, nearly 10 times the amount it did five years ago, and a mask might only get used on 100 wafers.

Another technology that could be big in the near term is a 3.5G telephone standard. The technological gap between 3G, which sends data at speeds between 384kpbs and 2,000kbps, and 4G, an entirely different standard that will deliver data at speeds between 10mbps and 100mbps, is actually quite large.

"We can imagine there will be something in between because the technology is so different," he said.

"There is a need for worldwide sharing of interdisciplinary research costs to keep Moore happy."
--Hugo De Man,
senior fellow, Interuniversity
MicroElectronics Center

Chin, who ran Samsung Electronics before becoming a government minister, also gave attendees a peek at the latest developments in South Korea.

WiBro--an energy-efficient broadband transmission technology that will be used for delivering mobile entertainment--will start to roll out commercially in the first half of this year. WiBro, which is also known sometimes as Digital Multimedia Broadcasting, sends signals out at 700kbps. A vehicle moving as fast as 40 mph can receive WiBro signals continuously.

The first carriers are expected to provide WiBro through antennas, and satellite transmission will follow soon after.

The technology will allow people to watch several different programs on their cell phones and could allow someone in a golf cart to watch the playoffs on a fairly high-resolution set without running the batteries dry. In a pretaped video demonstration, Chin tooled down the road in a bus while watching two TV stations and browsing the Internet.

"You have to have a different form of broadcasting for your portable devices," he said.