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DARPA has an ambitious $1.5 billion plan to reinvent electronics

The US military agency is worried the country could lose its edge in semiconductor chips with the end of Moore’s Law.
July 30, 2018
Illustration of red-striped pattern under a blue computer chip being filled with white five-point stars.
Illustration of red-striped pattern under a blue computer chip being filled with white five-point stars.Ms. Tech

Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funds a range of blue-sky research efforts relevant to the US military, launched a $1.5 billion, five-year program known as the Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) to support work on advances in chip technology. The agency has just unveiled the first set of research teams selected to explore unproven but potentially powerful approaches that could revolutionize US chip development and manufacturing.

Hardware innovation has taken something of a back seat to software advances in recent years, and that bothers the US military for several reasons.

End of an era

At the top of the list is that Moore’s Law, which holds that the number of transistors fitted on a chip doubles roughly every two years, is reaching its limits (see “Moore’s Law is dead. Now what?”). That could stymie future advances in electronics that the military relies on, unless new architectures and designs can allow progress in chip performance to continue.

There are also worries about the rising cost of designing integrated circuits, and about increased foreign—for which read “Chinese”—investment in semiconductor design and manufacturing (see “China wants to make the chips that will add AI to any gadget”).

The ERI’s budget represents around a fourfold increase in DARPA’s typical annual spending on hardware. Initial projects reflect the initiative’s three broad areas of focus: chip design, architecture, and materials and integration.

One project aims to radically reduce the time it takes to create a new chip design, from years or months to just a day, by automating the process with machine learning and other tools so that even relatively inexperienced users can create high-quality designs.

“No one yet knows how to get a new chip design completed in 24 hours safely without human intervention,” says Andrew Kahng of the University of California, San Diego, who’s leading one of the teams involved. “This is a fundamentally new approach we’re developing.”

“We’re trying to engineer the craft brewing revolution in electronics,” says William Chappell, the head of the DARPA office that manages the ERI program. The agency hopes that the automated design tools will inspire smaller companies without the resources of giant chip makers, just as specialized brewers in the US have innovated alongside the beer industry’s giants.

New chip materials and clever designs

If we’re going to move beyond Moore’s Law, though, the chances are that radically new materials, and new ways of integrating computing power and memory, will be needed. Shifting data between memory components that store it and processors that act on it sucks up energy and creates one of the biggest hurdles to boosting processing power.

Another ERI project will explore ways in which novel circuit integration schemes can eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the need to shift data around. The ultimate goal is to effectively embed computing power in memory, which could lead to dramatic increases in performance.

On the chip architecture front, DARPA wants to create hardware and software that can be reconfigured in real time to handle more general tasks or specialized ones such as specific artificial-intelligence applications. Today, multiple chips are needed, driving up complexity and cost.

Some of DARPA’s efforts overlap with areas already being worked on extensively in industry. An example is a project to develop 3-D system-on-chip technology, which aims to extend Moore’s Law by using new materials such as carbon nanotubes, and smarter ways of stacking and partitioning electronic circuits. Chappell acknowledges the overlap, but he says the agency’s own work is “probably the biggest effort to make [the approach] real.”

Not nearly enough

Some think DARPA and other arms of the US government that support electronics research, such as the Department of Energy, should be spending even more to spur innovation.

Erica Fuchs, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who’s an expert in public policy related to emerging technologies, says that as chip development has focused on more specific applications, big companies have lost their appetite for spending money on collaborative research efforts just as Moore’s Law is faltering.

Fuchs praises the ERI but thinks the US government’s overall approach to supporting electronics innovation is “easily an order of magnitude below” what's needed to address the challenges we're facing. Let’s hope the grassroots chip design movement that DARPA is trying to foment will go some way toward closing the gap. 

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