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DARPA shells out $194m for 'phase 6' of STARnet chip project

Nothing like SkyNet – we hope

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War tech agency DARPA is not happy with the pace of progress in semiconductors, so it has been funding primary research through a program called Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research Network - or STARnet for short, for the past several years. And it has now announced that it is kicking in another $194m over the next five years to fund phase six of the project, which incorporates studies on nanomaterials, spintronics, and swarm computing, among other things.

DARPA's STARnet projects

Despite whatever budget issues the US government is facing, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - which had a budget of $2.82bn in fiscal 2012 and only had a minuscule cut from the prior year - always seems to have dough to throw around to help do fundamental research in semiconductors, computing, networking, and related areas. And it's not wasted cash, either: many times the brains at the mad tech gov labs yield ideas and technologies that can be commercialized.

STARnet is a collaboration between the US Department of Defense, the Semiconductor Industry Association lobbying group, various chip and chip-making equipment manufacturers, and universities that do research in semiconductors. The STARnet program is administered by Semiconductor Research Corporation and has over 142 researchers from 38 different universities feeding at the trough and trying to push the limits of chips.

The latest funding round, announced last week separately by SRC and by DARPA, has six universities leading research in six different promising areas of materials, manufacturing techniques, and packaging with a slew of collaborators on each of the six areas and, not surprisingly, with a nice geographic spread across the states of the Union:

  • The Function Accelerated Nanomaterial Engineering (FAME) is located at the University of California-Los Angeles and has 13 other universities who are collaborating on "non-conventional materials and devices" that have nanoscale structures and quantum-level properties. The research looks at atomic-scale engineered materials and structures of multi-function oxides, metals, dialectrics, and semiconductors as they are used in analog, logic, and memory devices.
  • The Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces and Novel Architectures, known as C-SPIN, is researching electron spin-based memory and computation and is centered at the University of Minnesota with 12 collaborating universities.
  • The Center for Future Architectures Research (C-FAR) is centered at the University of Michigan and is looking parallel computing and fabric interconnects for large scale systems based on generic CMOS processes expected in the near-term. There are 13 collaborators on this sub-project at DARPA.
  • The Center for Low Energy Systems Technology (LEAST) is at Notre Dame University and has 9 collaborating universities. As the name suggests, this center focused on low-power integrated circuits and computing architectures, but is looking at non-conventional materials and quantum-engineered devices.
  • The Center for Systems on Nanoscale Information Fabrics, abbreviated SONIC because the Word Police are not allowed inside of government or academic facilities, is hosted at the University of Illinois and has seven collaborating universities. This one is quite funky and wants to move from a deterministic to statistical computing and communications, and spans the stack from semiconductor devices all the way up to application software
  • The TerraSwarm Research Center is at the University of California-Berkeley, and has eight collaborators from around the country. TerraSwarm is looking at a sensor and command-control systems on a city scale that can be deployed using massively distributed, swarm computing and communications technologies. This project looks at swarm sensors, big data processing, cloud computing, to work on "smarter cities," to use the IBM lingo.

OK, so maybe this is SkyNet. And we're working together on it, right out in the open.

"With such an ambitious task, we have implemented a nonstandard approach," explains Jeffrey Rogers, DARPA program manager. "Instead of several different universities competing against each other for a single contract, we now have large teams working collaboratively, each contributing their own piece toward a large end goal."

And now we know who we have to go back in time to get, Jeffrey. ®

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