Tech industry pioneer sees a way for the US to take the lead in advanced chips
It’s been six decades since Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, a software system that predicted the future of interactive and graphical computing. In the 1970s, he was instrumental in rallying the computer industry to build a new type of microchip with hundreds of thousands of circuits that would become the basis of today’s semiconductor industry.
Today, Dr. Sutherland, who is 84, believes that the United States is failing at a crucial time to consider alternative chip-making technologies that would allow the country to regain leadership in building the most advanced computers.
By relying on supercooled electronic circuits that switch without electrical resistance and, therefore, do not generate excessive heat at higher speeds, computer designers will be able to circumvent the biggest technological obstacle to faster machines, claims- he.
“The nation that best seizes the opportunity of superconducting digital circuits will benefit from computing superiority for decades to come,” he and a colleague recently wrote in an essay that has been circulating among technologists and government officials.
Dr. Sutherland’s ideas are important in part because decades ago he helped create today’s mainstream approach to making computer chips.
In the 1970s, Dr. Sutherland, who was chairman of the computer science department at the California Institute of Technology, and his brother Bert Sutherland, then director of research at a division of Xerox called the Palo Alto Research Center, introduced computer scientist Lynn Conway to physicist Carver Mead.
They pioneered a design based on a type of transistor, known as a complementary metal oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, that was invented in the United States. It made the microchips used in personal computers, video games, and the wide range of commercial, consumer, and military products.
Now Dr. Sutherland argues that an alternative technology that predates CMOS and has had many false starts should be reconsidered. Superconducting electronics were pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, then continued by IBM in the 1970s before being largely abandoned. At one point, he even took a strange international detour before returning to the United States.
In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, read an article in the Russian newspaper Pravda describing an amazing advance in low-temperature computing made by Fujitsu, the Japanese microelectronics giant.
Mr. Gorbachev was intrigued. Wasn’t this an area, he wanted to know, where the Soviet Union could excel? The task of giving a five-minute briefing to the Soviet Politburo ultimately fell to Konstantin Likharev, a young associate professor of physics at Moscow State University.
When he read the article, however, Dr Likharev realized that the Pravda reporter had misread the press release and claimed that Fujitsu’s superconducting memory chip was five orders of magnitude faster. than she was.
Dr. Likharev explained the error, but noted that the field still held promise.
This set off a series of events through which Dr. Likharev’s small laboratory received several million dollars in research support, enabling him to build a small team of researchers and, eventually, after the fall of the wall of Berlin, to move to the United States. Dr Likharev took a physics job at Stony Brook University in New York and helped start Hypres, a digital superconductor company that still exists.
The story could have ended there. But it looks like this elusive technology is gaining traction once again as the costs of manufacturing modern chips have become immense. A new semiconductor factory costs $10 billion to $20 billion and takes up to five years to complete.
Dr. Sutherland argues that rather than push for more expensive technology that produces diminishing efficiencies, the United States should consider nurturing a generation of young engineers who can think outside the box.
Computer systems based on superconductors, where electrical resistance in switches and wires drop to zero, could solve the cooling problem that increasingly plagues the world’s data centers.
CMOS chip manufacturing is dominated by Taiwanese and South Korean companies. The United States now plans to spend almost a third of a trillion dollars of private and public money in an effort to rebuild the country’s microchip industry and regain global dominance.
Dr. Sutherland is joined by others in the industry who believe that CMOS manufacturing is reaching fundamental limits that will make the cost of progress intolerable.
“I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to have to drastically change the way we design computers because we’re really approaching the limits of what’s possible with our current silicon-based technology,” said Jonathan Koomey, a specialist. in large-scale computing power requirements.
As it reduced the size of transistors to the size of a few hundred or thousands of atoms, the semiconductor industry was increasingly faced with a variety of technical challenges.
Modern microprocessor chips also suffer from what engineers describe as “black silicon”. If all the billions of transistors in a modern microprocessor chip are used simultaneously, the heat they create will melt the chip. Consequently, entire sections of modern chips are shut down and only some of the transistors are working at any time, making them much less efficient.
Dr Sutherland said the United States should consider alternative technologies for national security reasons. The benefits of superconducting computer technology could first be useful in the highly competitive market for cellular base stations, the specialized computers inside cell phone towers that process wireless signals, he suggested. . China has become a dominant force in today’s 5G technology market, but next-generation 6G chips would benefit from both the extreme speed and significantly lower power requirements of superconducting processors, he said.
Other industry leaders agree. “Ivan is right that the power problem is the big problem,” said John L. Hennessy, electrical engineer, president of Alphabet and former president of Stanford. He said there were only two ways to solve the problem – either by gaining efficiency with a new design, which is unlikely for general-purpose computers, or by creating new technology that is not not bound by existing rules.
One such opportunity could be to come up with new computer designs that mimic the human brain, which is a marvel of low-power computing efficiency. Artificial intelligence research in a field known as neuromorphic computing has already used conventional silicon fabrication.
“There really is the potential to create the equivalent of the human brain using superconducting technology,” said Elie Track, chief technology officer of Hypres, the superconducting company. Compared to quantum computing technology, which is still in its experimental early stages, “it’s something that can be done now, but unfortunately the funding agencies haven’t paid attention to it,” he said. .
The time for superconducting computing may not have arrived yet, in part because whenever the CMOS world seems poised to meet a final hurdle, clever engineering has overcome it.
In 2019, a team of MIT researchers led by Max Shulaker announced that they had built a microprocessor from carbon nanotubes that promised 10 times the energy efficiency of current silicon chips. Dr. Shulaker is working with Analog Devices, a semiconductor manufacturer in Wilmington, Mass., to commercialize a hybrid version of the technology.
“More and more, I believe you can’t beat silicon,” he said. “She’s a moving target, and she’s really good at what she does.”
But as silicon nears atomic limits, alternative approaches are showing promise again. Mark Horowitz, a Stanford computer scientist who helped start several Silicon Valley companies, said he wasn’t willing to overlook Dr. Sutherland’s passion for superconducting electronics.
“People who changed the course of history are always a little crazy, you know, but sometimes they’re crazy, aren’t they,” he said.
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