TR: Will silicon-based technology suddenly hit a wall?
WILLIAMS: From the physics standpoint, there are no reasons why the industry can’t get down to devices as small as 50 nanometers. But the problem is that getting there is becoming more and more challenging and more and more expensive. Rather than try to play the game, many companies will make an economic decision that they’re not going to make state-of-the-art chips. I’ve been preaching this for some time, and even I’m surprised at how fast this is happening. National Semiconductor-here’s a company with semiconductor right in its name-is not going to make next-generation microprocessors anymore. In fact, Hewlett-Packard announced recently that it will have its advanced processors built in a foundry (foundries are fabs that produce devices on a contract basis). Eventually there will be one or two fabs in the world building devices at the state of the art, and those fabs will probably be financed in large part by governments. Which means it probably won’t happen in the United States.
TR: And at this rate, how long will that take?
WILLIAMS: My guess is that it will be before 2012. It’s a big game of chicken. Who’s willing to spend the money for a new fab?
TR: How will the rapidly rising production costs, and the subsequent effect of companies exiting manufacturing, affect microelectronics?
WILLIAMS: The prices for the items we are buying today will not go up substantially, but we will not see the dramatic improvements in performance and decreases in cost for silicon-based devices that we have seen in the past. And the fact that so many big companies are getting out of silicon process research will definitely hurt innovation in microelectronics for a while. However, this is also going to open the door for a lot of small-scale entrepreneurs and inventors looking to create entirely new electronic devices and fabrication processes. I think the next decade will provide one of the greatest explosions of creativity we have seen since the invention of the transistor.
TR: You have predicted that, at the current rate of shrinkage, silicon-based devices will start to reach fundamental limits around 2010. In terms of finding and developing new technologies to replace silicon, it’s really not that far in the future, is it?
WILLIAMS: It’s frighteningly close. There is not yet a definite heir to silicon technology. To have a new technology ready by then, we have to be working hard right now. At HP, we have what we think is a pretty good candidate, but I think that technology and the future economics of this country would be a lot better off if there were more than one heir, if there were several groups with unique ideas competing. There are a few good ideas out there, but not enough.
TR: I’m surprised that there are not more, given what’s at stake.
WILLIAMS: A lot of the research is at the level of discrete devices. But there’s very little architectural-scale work going on. Instead of looking at discrete basic units, we’re looking at the function of an entire circuit.
TR: Rather than trying to make things at a nanometer scale, and then worry about how you might be able to use them, you already have in mind…
WILLIAMS: A potential overall structure. Most of the people who are working in this area are essentially trying to figure out how to make a molecular analogue of an existing electronic device; then they’re hoping they’ll figure out how to connect all these things to make a circuit or a system. People are essentially working hard to make a single brick and hoping that once they make it they can figure out how to build something out of it. On the other hand, we have the architectural drawing of the entire building, and we’re looking for the best materials to construct that building.