UK must act to grab chip development opportunity

The BCS has told an inquiry by the Lords Science and Technology Committee that urgent action is needed to prevent the UK missing...

The BCS has told an inquiry by the Lords Science and Technology Committee that urgent action is needed to prevent the UK missing big opportunities to make its mark in international chip technology progress, writes John Kavanagh.

New approaches to improving chip performance are needed, and the UK has skills in these areas, BCS representative David May, professor of computer science at Bristol University, told the inquiry.

Squeezing ever more transistors onto a chip and increasing processor speed do not always provide a corresponding increase in operating speed, May said. Insufficient attention to architecture design meant that general-purpose performance had lagged behind the potential suggested by Moore's law: this is named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who forecast in the 1960s that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 18 months - a forecast that has largely held true.

Indeed, the semiconductor industry is working to follow Moore's law. The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, sponsored by manufacturers from Europe, Asia and the US, is explicitly based on maintaining progress in line with Moore's law.

However, current progress raised some problems, May told the Lords inquiry.

"Complications arise from the difficulties in verifying that increasingly complex processors work correctly," he said. "Without advances in formal verification techniques, it is likely that an ever greater number of devices will be faulty and unreliable.

"There are also limitations in wire technology: while transistors are getting faster, the interconnecting wires are not, thus restricting the speed at which information can be moved."

May said escalating costs of chip design and production demanded that chips be made in very high numbers, and this worked against different chips being made for different applications, with each type being produced in relatively small numbers. This in turn meant it might become necessary to have generic chips made in larger quantities, using software to tailor them to particular applications.

Improvements in architecture alone could have significant impact on improving performance and should be pursued "energetically", May said. Parallel computing was the main area of potential benefit, with many processors applied concurrently to a single task.

Potentially, the UK has a major role to play. May said, "The UK has strengths in many areas relevant to the inquiry: high-complexity microelectronic design; simple, efficient architectures; programming languages and tools; theory and practice of concurrency; and formal verification."

He called for government support in these areas, adding, "Particular attention should be paid to creating the clusters of large research teams with industry links that computer architecture research requires, and to setting up more degree programmes which span architecture, software and verification. More and more people with these cross-cutting skills will be needed."

The Lords inquiry report, Chips for Everything: Britain's Opportunities in a Key Global Market, includes most of the BCS recommendations. It can be found at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldsctech.htm
This was last published in January 2003

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