At six-foot-six, Jack Kilby is tall by just about anyone's standards. And in the semiconductor industry, he's a giant. The laconic Kilby made the first integrated circuit -- which was the size of a penny -- in 1958. That breakthrough won him a share of the 2000 Nobel prize in physics. Now 78, the Texas Instruments (TXN ) researcher is widely recognized as one of the fathers of modern semiconductor manufacturing, a field in which he holds more than 60 patents.
These days, among the most advanced integrated circuits are the brains behind the latest cell phones and handheld computers. That's where Gene Frantz, another TI researcher and a pioneer in these brainy chips, comes in. Frantz is the co-inventor of the Speak & Spell, a toy that converted the written word to speech using one of the first "smart chips." In the third quarter of 2001, smart chips accounted for about 20% of TI's $1.8 billion in revenues.
Frantz, 53, is also known for Gene's Law, which postulates that power usage of integrated circuits decreases exponentially every 18 months, leading to reductions in the size of devices built around these chips and to longer battery life. Frantz jokes that he called the law by his first name because "I wasn't sure I wanted my last name on it." Yet many scientists -- especially designers of small products based on smart chips -- consider Gene's Law to be as important as Moore's Law, the well-established axiom that the amount of computing power that's available at a given price will double every 18 months.
NO CELL PHONE.
As protagonists of the first and second waves of semiconductor innovation, Kilby and Frantz have plenty of insight into what to expect when the third wave hits, perhaps by 2010. Smart chips, which already are found in devices ranging from computers to hair dryers, by then will perform increasingly complex tasks in an even greater variety of products.
The irony is that Kilby, who also co-invented the first handheld calculator, doesn't use many of the gadgets his inventions have made possible. He uses his computer only for word processing, and he doesn't believe in cell phones. "I don't need to call anyone that badly," he laughs.
Perhaps. In any case, the future he and Frantz see for smart chips goes considerably beyond mobile phones. It could include sidewalks that adjust their grade to accommodate wheelchairs and wearable computers that could send alerts when the wearer is having a heart attack. "The most exciting thing is that there's a lot of room for [technological] improvement," says Kilby, who officially retired from TI in the 1980s but still goes to the office nearly every day. He also does some consulting and is a director of several startups, including Bookham Technology (BKHM ), a British maker of silicon optical components.
Some advanced smart-chip devices are already making the transition from blue sky to blueprint, albeit in somewhat clunky form. For instance, Xybernaut (XYBR ) offers wearable computers that can be used to check e-mail and play computer games. While such devices today require many parts connected by wires, the next prototypes will be wireless and small enough to be clipped onto a shirt or fastened to your wrist, says Frantz.
Powered by tiny but remarkably efficient smart chips, wrist computers could be virtually unnoticeable and rely on human body heat for power. They could monitor a user's health and even serve as multifunction communicators, taking dictation and sending e-mail as well as making voice calls in case of an emergency.
Smart chips could also make possible powerful new contraptions for manipulating the physical environment and improving on human capabilities. A wearable computer could order armies of small hydraulic arms wired under a city sidewalk to adjust the pavement angle for easier passage by someone with luggage or in a wheelchair. They could manipulate furniture, creating chairs that remember the seat size of people who use them and adjust accordingly.
Frantz, who directs TI's efforts to find new uses for smart chips from an office equipped with a video phone and special wall paneling that he can write on whenever an idea strikes him, might even someday get a with a device to help him organize his collection of 100,000 baseball cards.
In the meantime, he thinks one of the first uses of advanced chips could be in hearing aids. Today, many people who are nearly deaf regain some hearing by wearing an earpiece that's powered by a device the size of a cell phone and is worn elsewhere on the body. In the future, miniaturized smart chips might allow that entire apparatus to be small enough for doctors to implant in a patient's ear, says Frantz. Another possibility: Similar but removable devices that would let airplane passengers reduce cabin noise, to better hear the person sitting next to them.
Along with such miracles will have to come tougher standards for chip production. Since devices based on smart chips will have to interact safely with humans, there'll be no room for manufacturing errors. Kilby likens it to "writing a couple of novels with no typographical errors." Manufacturers will have to keep shrinking smart chips to help broaden their possible uses. Among those trying to achieve that goal will be one of Frantz's two daughters, who was among the first children to try Speak & Spell and is now an engineer at TI.
Don't think, however, that the third wave of the chip revolution will belong exclusively to the next generation. With the Kilbys and Frantzs of the industry on case, it could arrive sooner rather than later.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.
Edited by Alex Salkever