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Physicist: Quantum Uncertainty May Stall Moore’s Law

Comments(0)Filed under: Industry Insights, Embedded Systems Conference, 32nm, stacked die, silicon, Kaku, quantum, Heisenberg, physics, Moore's Law, ESC, uncertainty, physicist

The Embedded Systems Conference could hardly have found a more interesting keynote speaker than Dr. Michio Kaku, a well-known author and theoretical physicist who recently wrote a book entitled "Physics of the Impossible." As a frequent watcher of his programs on the Science Channel, I wasn't surprised when he talked about some amazing technology that's just a decade or two away.

I was somewhat surprised when he directly addressed Moore's Law, and suggested that quantum effects may halt its advance by 2020. "Unless we prepare for this," he warned, "Silicon Valley may become a rust belt."

Looking a Decade Out

First, the good news. Setting aside (for now) the really far-out stuff like interstellar travel, Dr. Kaku talked about some exciting technology that's on the near horizon. For example:

  • Augmented reality will create a connected, virtual-reality like experience through goggles, glasses or smart contact lenses. You could potentially talk to a foreign language speaker and see subtitles, or envision a 3D building that doesn't exist yet, or have 360 degree vision around a car, or download content from the Internet during a final exam by simply blinking (this last possibility is not recommended).
  • Flexible paper with embedded chips will create interactive wallpaper. You could watch a movie or play a card game with people anywhere in the world. In the office, disposable "scrap computers" made of flexible paper will become commonplace.
  • Brain/computer interfaces will allow direct control over robots and computers. With a chip implant, paralyzed people will be able to interact with the world - in fact, this has already been done. "Telepathy will be the way we interact with machines in the future," Dr. Kaku said.
  • Medicine will be revolutionized in multiple ways. Wireless sensor networks in bathrooms will detect early signs of disease. "Human body shops" will make it possible to generate organs from your own cells. Portable MRI machines will become tomorrow's "tricorders."

But What About Silicon?

But how are we going to build all this nifty stuff? The bad news, for those of us connected to the semiconductor industry, is that it may not be with silicon as we know it today.

Moore's Law tells us that compute power will double every 18 months as we move to lower process nodes. By 2020, Dr. Kaku believes, chips will cost a few pennies and will be everywhere - but Moore's Law will be in serious trouble. One reason is that heat generation will be so intense that "you could fry an egg on a chip." Stacking die into cubes won't really help, he said, because heat generation increases exponentially as we go down the process curve.

The second problem is quantum tunneling, which refers to a particle's ability to penetrate energy barriers. When feature sizes are merely 5 atoms across, Dr. Kaku said, "electrons leak out and you can't predict where they are." This is because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which tells us that the location and velocity of a particle cannot be predicted simultaneously.

Dr. Kaku noted that work is ongoing on a number of silicon alternatives, including molecular computers, quantum computers, optical computers, and graphene sheets. But none of these are "ready for prime time." So the question remains - what will the new technologies he describes be built from?

A Reality Check

Long before quantum effects relegate further scaling to the "physics of the impossible," moving to the latest process node will be too expensive for many companies. SoC development costs at 32 nm are now estimated at $100 million, and 22 nm, with its requirement for double patterning, will be even more expensive. Yet we need billions of microscopic chips that cost pennies to bring about the inventions Dr. Kaku described.

How do we solve this problem? By easing hardware and software IP integration and lowering development and unit costs, the EDA360 vision articulated by Cadence earlier this week can help. EDA360 isn't looking at quantum or molecular computing - yet - but it may help us extend the life of silicon, and thus support the kind of innovation described in Dr. Kaku's fascinating keynote.

Richard Goering




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