DARPA splashes $1.5bn to re-invent the electronics industry

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

There is a concern that the lack of focus on developing new, advanced hardware will put US business and its military at a serious disadvantage in the future so DARPA is quadrupling its investments.

 

There is now question that the electronics industry has been the driving force that’s helped revolutionise the world and last year the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, which funds a range of blue sky research efforts, that range from bringing crops back from the dead and turning them into surveillance devices, to curing pandemicsuploading knowledge to people’s brains and developing new telepathic communication tools, launched a $1.5 billion, five year program known as the Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) to support work on advances in chip and electronics technology.

 

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Now the agency has unveiled the first set of research teams its selected to explore “unproven but potentially powerful approaches” that could help revolutionise US chip development and manufacturing.

At the top of the list is solving the problem of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors fitted on a chip doubles roughly every two years, which is now slowing down and reaching its limits. In this case the US fears that the so called predicted “death” of Moore’s Law could stymie future advances in the electronics that the military relies on unless they find new architectures and designs that can breathe new life into it and allow the  progress in chip performance to continue.

There are also worries about the rising cost of designing integrated circuits, and about increased foreign, for which read “Chinese,” investment in semiconductor design and manufacturing.

 

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The ERI’s budget represents around a four fold increase in DARPA’s typical annual spending on hardware and these initial projects reflect the initiative’s three main focus areas, namely chip design, architecture, and materials and integration.

One project, for example, aims to radically reduce the time it takes to create a new chip design, from years or months to just a day, by automating the process with machine learning and other tools so that even relatively inexperienced users can create high-quality designs.

“No one yet knows how to get a new chip design completed in 24 hours safely without human intervention,” says Andrew Kahng of the University of California San Diego, who’s leading one of the teams involved. “This is a fundamentally new approach we’re developing.”

“We’re trying to engineer the craft brewing revolution in electronics,” says William Chappell, the head of the DARPA office that manages the ERI program. The agency hopes that the automated design tools will inspire smaller companies without the resources of giant chip makers, just as specialised brewers in the US have innovated alongside the beer industry’s giants.

 

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If we’re going to reboot and move beyond Moore’s Law though the chances are that radically new materials, and new ways of integrating computing power and memory, will be needed. Shifting data between memory components that store it and processors that act on it sucks up energy and creates one of the biggest hurdles to boosting processing power.

Another ERI project will explore ways in which novel circuit integration schemes can eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the need to shift data around. The ultimate goal here is to effectively embed computing power in memory, which could lead to dramatic increases in performance.

On the chip architecture front, DARPA wants to create hardware and software that can be reconfigured in real time, such as their theoretical Morpheus Computer, to handle more general tasks or specialised ones such as specific Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. Today, for example, multiple chips are needed, driving up complexity and cost.

 

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Some of DARPA’s efforts overlap with areas already being worked on extensively in industry. An example is a project to develop 3D system-on-chip technology, which aims to extend Moore’s Law by using new materials such as carbon nanotubes, that are already being used to create new forms of transistors and battery systems, and smarter ways of stacking and partitioning electronic circuits. Chappell acknowledges the overlap, but he says the agency’s own work is “probably the biggest effort to make [the approach] real.”

Some though think DARPA and other arms of the US government that support electronics research, such as the US Department of Energy, should be spending even more to spur innovation.

Erica Fuchs, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who’s an expert in public policy related to emerging technologies, says that as chip development has focused on more specific applications, big companies have lost their appetite for spending money on collaborative research efforts just as Moore’s Law is faltering, even as we see the emergence of new 0.1nm transistor  and new liquid transistor and single atom quantum transistor designs.

 

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Fuchs praises the ERI but thinks the US government’s overall approach to supporting electronics innovation is “easily an order of magnitude below” what’s needed to address the challenges we’re facing, and many people agree that for too long now the focus has been on software development with hardware development being left out in the cold. Let’s hope the grassroots chip design movement that DARPA is trying to foment will go some way toward closing the gap.

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