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#437345 Moore’s Law Lives: Intel Says Chips ...

If you weren’t already convinced the digital world is taking over, you probably are now.

To keep the economy on life support as people stay home to stem the viral tide, we’ve been forced to digitize interactions at scale (for better and worse). Work, school, events, shopping, food, politics. The companies at the center of the digital universe are now powerhouses of the modern era—worth trillions and nearly impossible to avoid in daily life.

Six decades ago, this world didn’t exist.

A humble microchip in the early 1960s would have boasted a handful of transistors. Now, your laptop or smartphone runs on a chip with billions of transistors. As first described by Moore’s Law, this is possible because the number of transistors on a chip doubled with extreme predictability every two years for decades.

But now progress is faltering as the size of transistors approaches physical limits, and the money and time it takes to squeeze a few more onto a chip are growing. There’ve been many predictions that Moore’s Law is, finally, ending. But, perhaps also predictably, the company whose founder coined Moore’s Law begs to differ.

In a keynote presentation at this year’s Hot Chips conference, Intel’s chief architect, Raja Koduri, laid out a roadmap to increase transistor density—that is, the number of transistors you can fit on a chip—by a factor of 50.

“We firmly believe there is a lot more transistor density to come,” Koduri said. “The vision will play out over time—maybe a decade or more—but it will play out.”

Why the optimism?

Calling the end of Moore’s Law is a bit of a tradition. As Peter Lee, vice president at Microsoft Research, quipped to The Economist a few years ago, “The number of people predicting the death of Moore’s Law doubles every two years.” To date, prophets of doom have been premature, and though the pace is slowing, the industry continues to dodge death with creative engineering.

Koduri believes the trend will continue this decade and outlined the upcoming chip innovations Intel thinks can drive more gains in computing power.

Keeping It Traditional
First, engineers can further shrink today’s transistors. Fin field effect transistors (or FinFET) first hit the scene in the 2010s and have since pushed chip features past 14 and 10 nanometers (or nodes, as such size checkpoints are called). Korduri said FinFET will again triple chip density before it’s exhausted.

The Next Generation
FinFET will hand the torch off to nanowire transistors (also known as gate-all-around transistors).

Here’s how they’ll work. A transistor is made up of three basic components: the source, where current is introduced, the gate and channel, where current selectively flows, and the drain. The gate is like a light switch. It controls how much current flows through the channel. A transistor is “on” when the gate allows current to flow, and it’s off when no current flows. The smaller transistors get, the harder it is to control that current.

FinFET maintained fine control of current by surrounding the channel with a gate on three sides. Nanowire designs kick that up a notch by surrounding the channel with a gate on four sides (hence, gate-all-around). They’ve been in the works for years and are expected around 2025. Koduri said first-generation nanowire transistors will be followed by stacked nanowire transistors, and together, they’ll quadruple transistor density.

Building Up
Growing transistor density won’t only be about shrinking transistors, but also going 3D.

This is akin to how skyscrapers increase a city’s population density by adding more usable space on the same patch of land. Along those lines, Intel recently launched its Foveros chip design. Instead of laying a chip’s various “neighborhoods” next to each other in a 2D silicon sprawl, they’ve stacked them on top of each other like a layer cake. Chip stacking isn’t entirely new, but it’s advancing and being applied to general purpose CPUs, like the chips in your phone and laptop.

Koduri said 3D chip stacking will quadruple transistor density.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The technologies Koduri outlines are an evolution of the same general technology in use today. That is, we don’t need quantum computing or nanotube transistors to augment or replace silicon chips yet. Rather, as it’s done many times over the years, the chip industry will get creative with the design of its core product to realize gains for another decade.

Last year, veteran chip engineer Jim Keller, who at the time was Intel’s head of silicon engineering but has since left the company, told MIT Technology Review there are over a 100 variables driving Moore’s Law (including 3D architectures and new transistor designs). From the standpoint of pure performance, it’s also about how efficiently software uses all those transistors. Keller suggested that with some clever software tweaks “we could get chips that are a hundred times faster in 10 years.”

But whether Intel’s vision pans out as planned is far from certain.

Intel’s faced challenges recently, taking five years instead of two to move its chips from 14 nanometers to 10 nanometers. After a delay of six months for its 7-nanometer chips, it’s now a year behind schedule and lagging other makers who already offer 7-nanometer chips. This is a key point. Yes, chipmakers continue making progress, but it’s getting harder, more expensive, and timelines are stretching.

The question isn’t if Intel and competitors can cram more transistors onto a chip—which, Intel rival TSMC agrees is clearly possible—it’s how long will it take and at what cost?

That said, demand for more computing power isn’t going anywhere.

Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, and Facebook now make up a whopping 20 percent of the stock market’s total value. By that metric, tech is the most dominant industry in at least 70 years. And new technologies—from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to a proliferation of Internet of Things devices and self-driving cars—will demand better chips.

There’s ample motivation to push computing to its bitter limits and beyond. As is often said, Moore’s Law is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and likely whatever comes after it will be too.

Image credit: Laura Ockel / Unsplash Continue reading

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#437224 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

VIRTUAL REALITY
How Holographic Tech Is Shrinking VR Displays to the Size of Sunglasses
Kyle Orland | Ars Technica
“…researchers at Facebook Reality Labs are using holographic film to create a prototype VR display that looks less like ski goggles and more like lightweight sunglasses. With a total thickness less than 9mm—and without significant compromises on field of view or resolution—these displays could one day make today’s bulky VR headset designs completely obsolete.”

TRANSPORTATION
Stock Surge Makes Tesla the World’s Most Valuable Automaker
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“It’s a remarkable milestone for a company that sells far fewer cars than its leading rivals. …But Wall Street is apparently very optimistic about Tesla’s prospects for future growth and profits. Many experts expect a global shift to battery electric vehicles over the next decade or two, and Tesla is leading that revolution.”

FUTURE OF FOOD
These Plant-Based Steaks Come Out of a 3D Printer
Adele Peters | Fast Company
“The startup, launched by cofounders who met while developing digital printers at HP, created custom 3D printers that aim to replicate meat by printing layers of what they call ‘alt-muscle,’ ‘alt-fat,’ and ‘alt-blood,’ forming a complex 3D model.”

AUTOMATION
The US Air Force Is Turning Old F-16s Into AI-Powered Fighters
Amit Katwala | Wired UK
“Maverick’s days are numbered. The long-awaited sequel to Top Gun is due to hit cinemas in December, but the virtuoso fighter pilots at its heart could soon be a thing of the past. The trustworthy wingman will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence, built into a drone, or an existing fighter jet with no one in the cockpit.”

ROBOTICS
NASA Wants to Build a Steam-Powered Hopping Robot to Explore Icy Worlds
Georgina Torbet | Digital Trends
“A bouncing, ball-like robot that’s powered by steam sounds like something out of a steampunk fantasy, but it could be the ideal way to explore some of the distant, icy environments of our solar system. …This round robot would be the size of a soccer ball, with instruments held in the center of a metal cage, and it would use steam-powered thrusters to make jumps from one area of terrain to the next.”

FUTURE
Could Teleporting Ever Work?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Have the major airlines spent decades suppressing teleportation research? Have a number of renowned scientists in the field of teleportation studies disappeared under mysterious circumstances? Is there a cork board at the FBI linking Delta Airlines, shady foreign security firms, and dozens of murdered research professors? …No. None of that is the case. Which begs the question: why doesn’t teleportation exist yet?”

ENERGY
Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Could Make Meltdowns a Thing of the Past
Daniel Oberhaus | Wired
“Not only will these reactors be smaller and more efficient than current nuclear power plants, but their designers claim they’ll be virtually meltdown-proof. Their secret? Millions of submillimeter-size grains of uranium individually wrapped in protective shells. It’s called triso fuel, and it’s like a radioactive gobstopper.”

TECHNOLOGY
A Plan to Redesign the Internet Could Make Apps That No One Controls
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Techology Review
“[John Perry] Barlow’s ‘home of Mind’ is ruled today by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu—a small handful of the biggest companies on earth. Yet listening to the mix of computer scientists and tech investors speak at an online event on June 30 hosted by the Dfinity Foundation…it is clear that a desire for revolution is brewing.”

IMPACT
To Save the World, the UN Is Turning It Into a Computer Simulation
Will Bedingfield | Wired
“The UN has now announced its new secret recipe to achieve [its 17 sustainable development goals or SDGs]: a computer simulation called Policy Priority Inference (PPI). …PPI is a budgeting software—it simulates a government and its bureaucrats as they allocate money on projects that might move a country closer to an SDG.”

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