Future of computing crystal-balled by top chip boffins
Bad news: It's going to be tough. Good news: You won't be replaced
If you thought that the microprocessor's first 40 years were chock full of brain-boggling developments, just wait for the next 40 – that's the consensus of a quartet of Intel heavyweights, past and present, with whom we recently spoke.
At the 4004's 40th birthday party in a San Francisco watering hole on November 15, The Reg got an interesting earful from the leader of that first commercially available microprocessor's design team, Federico Faggin. At that same soirée, we also buttonholed Shekhar Borkar of Intel Labs, where he directs microprocessor technology research.
Both men expressed confidence leavened with caution when describing the frontiers of microprocessor design and the future of computing.
Coupled with our earlier discussions with Intel microprocessor architect Steve Pawlowski and process technologist Mark Bohr, we came away with the impression that the past 40 years – especially the first 30 – weren't a simple and straightforward matter of process-size scaling as they may have appeared to those of us who were outside of the research labs.
The chip that helped start the computing revolution, in the hand of its lead designer
We also learned that that the next 10 years will be tough – and that after that, the crystal ball goes dark.
It ain't been no cakewalk
When we asked Borkar and Faggin about what might be the biggest challenges when developing future microprocessor technologies, Borkar pointed out that process improvements have been challenging since day one. "It's really tough. It has been tough."
Referring to the microprocessor's first 30 years, when process technology focussed on scaling using Robert Dennard's MOSFET scaling guidelines as outlined in his landmark 1974 paper, Borkar said "It wasn't a breeze. Dennard scaling laid down the recipe – and it was a very good recipe. And people said, 'Let's follow it'. But it wasn't easy."
Times have changed, though – and not for the better. "Now," he said, "that recipe doesn't work."
Borkar then backtracked a bit, clarifying his statement to say that he believes that engineers will continue to advance scaling, but through more-selective choices of techniques. "It's not fair to say that we are at the end of Dennard scaling," he admitted.
"Dennard scaling showed a simple recipe. A well-behaved recipe," he said. "Now what we are doing is we are following that recipe, but we are doing it intelligently. 'Okay, I am going to scale length only', or 'I am going to scale the oxide, and not length'. We're doing it intelligently, as opposed to scaling everything down. So it is not fair to Dennard to say we are not following his recipe."
And Borkar has plenty of confidence in continued innovation. "The engineers," he said, "they'll find out a way to do it. There have been lots of innovations that have happened in process technologies – even in the 90s, when they were following Dennard scaling all the way through."
But nowadays, Borkar said, the challenges are getting tougher day by day. But again he put his faith in the ingenuity of engineers. "The one thing that gets the engineers going is a challenge. So when you give them this challenge: 'Make that 10 nanometer device work for me', they don't know better – they make it work for you," he said.
"That's what we did for the last 40 years."
Federico Faggin agreed that experimentation, failure, and innovation are what's needed to push the process forward. "That's life in the trenches," he said.
"I agree with Shekhar that engineers will figure out a way," he continued. "They will not figure out a way to use half an atom to do something, so there's going to be a limit on how small...", at which point Borkar interrupted him, joking: "Go and challenge them. That's my policy."
Next page: Coming soon to an Intel chip near you...
Mimic the human brain!
I started computing when the 4004 came out - using machines the size of a large car- 20 years earlier thermionic LEO ran the whole of Lyons business - thousands of shops and warehouses and employees paid and stock controlled.
We now have machines a billion times more powerful than the 4004 on each desk and we can now just about e-mail accounts to pass the buck or spend all day arguing over which font to use on something that only a computer should ever see.
They can already mimic the human brain - just turn them off!
Big hot throbbing x86 forever
Intel would rather battle the laws of physics than create a new instruction set? No wonder there's so much research using different CPUs, GPUs, and DSPs. The science behind low-level software must evolve too. One thing that's sorely lacking is executing parallel tasks with low latency. Researchers, compiler designers, and game developers could probably rattle off a dozen other areas where low-level software hasn't kept up.
You speak like being a gamer is a bad thing... GPGPU wouldn't exist if there wasn't a financial reason for it, and gamers pay the bills for the research that really makes it all possible. If we just needed advanced 2D, we wouldn't have any of the excess power in graphics cards we often can re-purpose now... which is making it's way in to super computers.
If you're being short-sighted enough to suggest on the whole humans have hit a limit on the processing power we need, unless we play games... I suppose you didn't need more than 64k of memory either?
That's all very well, but will they play Crysis 6?
Seriously though, excellent couple of articles Rik. Stuff like this is the reason I love the Reg, and will forgive all the (usually Apple) clickbait articles to come back and read.
Mimicking the human brain isn't necessarily a good target
We can't do 10 million floating point operations per second; the brain simply isn't designed for that kind of stuff. Some people I know couldn't do one floating point operation per ten million seconds. The brain is good at what it's good at, but it's not good at what it's not good at, and the reason we have tools is to complement our natural abilities. A hammer is made of metal so that it can bash nails in. If a hammer "mimicked a human fist" then it would be useless - we can't punch nails into the wall (with the possible exception of Chuck Norris).