Even by the standards of the Lone Star State, the claim by two Texas researchers -- Douglas C. Burger and Stephen W. Keckler -- can seem a trifle grandiose. "We're reinventing the computer," asserts Keckler.
A glance at their backers, though, dispels some of the skepticism. IBM (IBM ) is working closely with the two University of Texas computer scientists. And the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2001 handed them $11 million in development funds. Now, IBM is gearing up to manufacture the first prototype of their concept for a radically new computer-brain chip. If it delivers what Burger and Keckler promise, high-tech gurus are betting it will spawn a new family of superchips from Big Blue -- chips capable of crunching a trillion calculations every second.
Such blistering speed would itself be amazing; it's roughly the oomph of a $50 million supercomputer in 1997. But more impressive, the chip can rewire itself on the fly -- a feat known as reconfigurable computing. With this technology, a future Macintosh from Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ) might rejigger the circuitry on its PowerPC chip and then run software written for Intel (INTC ) Corp.'s microprocessors. Or an iPod music player could turn into a handheld computer -- or detect an incoming call and convert itself into a cell phone.
IBM is hardly the only chipmaker chasing morphing semiconductors. Virtually every major supplier of so-called logic chips is working on some such notion, including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), Intel, NEC (NIPNY ), Philips Electronics (PHG ), and Texas Instruments (TXN ). A dozen or more startups are in the race as well, including Velogix, picoChip Designs, and MathStar.
Laying a new foundation for processors is crucial because the usual way of boosting performance, by adding more transistors, is running out of steam. Or rather, it's running into steam -- in the form of too much heat. The chips coming by 2008 will have circuit lines so skinny that an advanced microprocessor could sport roughly 20 miles of tiny wires. The juice needed to push signals through circuitry that long could generate enough heat to melt the wires.
One way to avoid that is to carve up each silicon slab into two or more processors with shorter circuitry. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ) Inc. is already doing this. Intel's upcoming "dual core" chips will further exploit this approach with something called Vanderpool Technology. These chips can simultaneously boot up two different operating systems -- say, Windows XP and Linux -- each running different software applications.
The brain in Sony (SNE ) Corp.'s PlayStation 3 video-game console, slated to hit Japanese markets late this year, will contain nine processors: a PowerPC overseeing eight simpler processors. This multicore chip, called Cell, was developed jointly by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba (TOSBF ). Sony claims the Cell will make the PlayStation 3 as powerful as Deep Blue, the IBM computer that dethroned chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. And Toshiba Corp. envisions Cell seeding a new generation of "smart" high-definition TVs and other consumer-electronics gear.
Cell has another form of reconfigurability. Each sliver of silicon is studded with thousands of so-called eFuses. If the chip's watchdog circuit detects a malfunction, it will disconnect that segment by blowing one of the fuses, then call up spare circuitry that was held in reserve.
IBM's Power5 chips also feature this technology. For Big Blue, eFuses have an economic benefit: IBM can crank out high volumes of identical chips, then blow fuses to tailor them for a given market. "The graphics processor has to be configured one way in an IBM computer and another way for a Macintosh," notes Subramanian Iyer, an engineer and co-inventor of the eFuse technique. "Before, we had to make two different chips and try to predict how many of each we would need. Now, we just make one chip."
In terms of dexterity, though, the current champ of reconfigurability is the field-programmable gate array (FPGA). Think of an FPGA as a wire grid with silicon traffic lights at every junction. Special control instructions adjust the stop and go lights, directing electronic signals along a specific route. This process can map the zigzag path of a new circuit thousands of times a second. So the chip can create a custom circuit for processing each successive step in a program.
Eventually, such chips may turn anything electronic into "a mass market of one," says Ivo Bolsens, chief technology officer at Xilinx (XLNX ) Inc., an FPGA supplier in San Jose, Calif. "Say you buy a new remote control," he says. "It starts out empty. But when you bring it home, it recognizes all the systems you have -- the make and model of your TV, your DVD player, your stereo -- and customizes itself to send the proper signals."
While that degree of reconfigurability in consumer products is still down the road, FPGAs are finding their way into big computers. Last February supercomputer pioneer Cray (CRAYE ) Inc. reported remarkable results with its compact new system, the Cray XD1. It's built with motherboards that each have one AMD chip and six FPGAs. Primed for breaking cryptographic codes, the FPGAs boosted speeds by 1,000 times. But that's unusual, admits Steven L. Scott, Cray's chief technology officer. More typical results come from geological modeling of oil company seismic data. At that, the XD1 was 15 times to 100 times faster.
Unfortunately, writing the programs that rewire an FPGA is difficult and time consuming. But several academic institutions are striving to simplify the chore. The Ohio Supercomputer Center is assembling a library of mix-and-match software modules, for example.
Programming the chip that's emerging in Texas won't be such a hassle, says Burger, because the chip was designed precisely to make the task easier. Partly that's done with multiple cores preconfigured for common logic operations, so the traffic switches just need to shunt signals to the proper core.
Burger figures the transition to reconfigurable chips will stretch into the next decade. But Tsugio Makimoto, Sony's chief technology officer, predicts the turning point will be 2007. From then on, he expects adaptive chips to be the norm for new-product design efforts.
Computer visionaries believe reconfigurability will help usher in the next leap in digital evolution: ubiquitous computing. Then, practically everything you touch at home or the office will contain chips that know you and your preferences -- and can talk wirelessly to nearby chips. For this new era, Intel plans a multicore chip for controlling not only PCs but also TVs, appliances, and copy machines. And a wireless networking chip, or a core, won't care whether the jabbering is wrapped in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi -- two different wireless standards. It will just adapt to whatever is in the air.
How all this will be achieved is still uncertain. Current morphing techniques could get hammered by some new breakthrough, such as the FPGA-like grid in the works at Hewlett-Packard Co., which would replace silicon with a cheap conducting plastic. But among chip mavens, the vision of the final payoff is surprisingly consistent. All the smart gear in homes, offices, and cars is linked together, and no product will be frozen in time by the chips installed at the factory. With chameleon chips, regardless of how frenetic the pace of innovation becomes, even hardware upgrades will be just a download away.
By Otis Port in New York