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Intel Works on Faster Computer Chip Technology

May 7, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT


JERRY BAUTISTA, Director of Technology Management, Intel: Well, this is a simple game of your hands sort of…

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Human interaction between the real world — in this case, me — and the virtual world — in this case, the bouncing ball stored on the computer — is possible today using a standard personal computer.

JERRY BAUTISTA: It’s imaging the movement of your hand. It’s watching for surfaces that move along. It’s tracking the position of each ball. It’s also tracking the rotation. We’ve imposed gravity on these balls. You notice they sink.

SPENCER MICHELS: Technology manager Jerry Bautista runs an experimental lab at Intel, the world’s largest maker of computer chips. Those chips are the brains of a computer. And the more powerful they are, the more they can do.

Bautista considers this display, although impressive, relatively elementary. A more complicated task, like recognizing faces in a crowd, is what he’s working on.

This is a simulation of a program that recognizes facial characteristics of actors in a Korean soap opera. More than 20 computers were used to make it. Eventually, the company expects to use a single computer to achieve this effect. Nice for soap opera fans, but Intel’s Bautista says there are more serious applications on the horizon.

JERRY BAUTISTA: Now, think about security. So you’re in an airport. You have an Interpol database of people you’re trying to find. You have a sea of people walking around you, so you want to find a person.

Then you want to assess what they’re doing. What is their intent? Do they look agitated? And that level of artificial intelligence is much more sophisticated and requires a lot more computer horsepower than we have today.

Improving chip technology

SPENCER MICHELS: That kind of power is currently only available from so-called supercomputers that are so large they can fill an entire room. But thanks to some recent advances in chip technology, ever smaller computers will soon be able to do that high-level work.

Do you feel the big changes, I mean, and how important this place is?

PAUL OTELLINI, CEO, Intel: Oh, yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: Intel was the first to announce such a breakthrough. We caught up with CEO Paul Otellini in the company's computer museum in Silicon Valley, named for the material most chips have been made from since 1959. Otellini said Intel is replacing most of the silicon used in both the chip base and in its transistors.

PAUL OTELLINI: We've gone from silicon to hafnium. We've also put in some other secret sauce that we're not talking about yet that allow us to do this.

SPENCER MICHELS: The silicon used to insulate chips had to be replaced because, as chips got smaller and thinner, the silicon started to overheat, leak electricity, and waste power, so much so that scientists feared they had reached a limit in making faster chips.

But thin layers of hafnium, a metal used to cool nuclear reactors, don't overheat or leak, so researchers are now able to nearly double the number of microscopic transistors, or gates, on a chip. They're called gates because the flow of electric current opens and closes the gate, representing the zeroes and ones that make up basic computer language.

Intel's Otellini says the implications are enormous.

PAUL OTELLINI: Our entire economy, not just the Western world, but the entire world, is increasingly built around information. Information flows through transistors. The transistor is the seminal invention of our generation. And I think being able to continue to make them, you know, better and cheaper and faster is something which is, you know, very, very forward-looking, in terms of where the world is going.

SPENCER MICHELS: The new chips due out later this year are designed for computers, but the breakthrough could also eventually impact consumer devices, like cell phones and music players, now a large part of the very competitive chip market. Officials at Intel's main rivals, AMD and IBM, said they, too, were working to develop an equivalent chip.

BERNARD MEYERSON, Technology Officer, IBM: Imagine the 747's engine. If you stuck a big bag over the front end of it and created a vacuum with it, that's what's going on in there.

SPENCER MICHELS: IBM's leading technologist, Bernard Meyerson, said his company is constantly innovating to make its chips faster and more durable, with equipment such as this spintronic machine, which lays down a super thin layer of metal for use in chips.

BERNARD MEYERSON: The challenge of it is, is that when you're working with things like a single atom, the purity of what you've got to do is unimaginable.

SPENCER MICHELS: In late march, IBM's Meyerson unveiled a prototype chip that can transmit huge volumes of data by beaming light pulses through plastic fibers, an approach that uses far less energy than traditional copper wire. The chip will eventually make it possible to download a high-definition feature-length movie in a single second.

However, Meyerson said, just improving the chip as Intel has done won't make a big difference in improving the computer. What IBM does, he says, is improve the whole computing package.

BERNARD MEYERSON: There's a lot more to a computer than its chip. It's a bit like saying, "I can drive down the road if I have gas." True, you also probably need a car. You see, trying to pretend that you can get away with just optimizing one aspect of an enormous problem, that misses the point.

Chip prototypes

SPENCER MICHELS: But officials at Intel insist their inventions will advance the entire industry. Otellini recently showed off a wafer, on which are etched the prototypes of several hundred newly designed chips, with 80 separate computing units, or cores, on each chip.

Currently, the most advanced microprocessors contain just four units. The new development will vastly increase the chip's ability to handle complex tasks.

PAUL OTELLINI: But we think that the capability embodied by this prototype chip is going to be commercially available in a five-year window, and that allows us to do some very amazing things.

This kind of capability goes into solving some of the big problems of the world, modeling climate change. How do you deal with solving cancer? Curing cancer is not going to happen because of a miracle vaccine; it's going to be because we have enough data, and enough markers identified, and then regress them through analysis, and find out what it takes to fix your problem or someone else's problem, not the generic problem.

SPENCER MICHELS: The increase in speed will be exponential, according to Intel physicist and chip designer Mark Bohr, whom we met at a scientific conference.

MARK BOHR, Physicist, Intel: Now, this chip can perform about one trillion operations per second. Now, 10 years ago, Intel made a computer that could also do one trillion operations per second. That computer was the size of a room and used tens of thousands of watts of power. The chip that we reported at the conference is the size of a fingernail, and it uses less than a hundred watts of power.

SPENCER MICHELS: But AMD's chief of technology Phillip Hester dismissed the 80-core chip as a science project with no practical use at present. And it would require the industry to develop a whole new way of writing software.

PHIL HESTER, Chief Technology Officer, AMD: Our approach is really different, in that we're going to start with what the end customer wants and then work backwards from that to figure out what the technology needs are, not start with the technology and try to force that into a market, or a position that it really doesn't fit.

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead, Hester says, AMD is focusing on the capability of its graphics technology that was used by Lucasfilm to create the Academy Award-winning graphics in the most recent "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Hester says AMD's package of fast chips and specialized graphics processors can be used today for real-world problems. He pointed to this model of an Alzheimer protein which was developed with the help of an AMD chip. It helps scientists study the causes of the disease.

PHIL HESTER: So what previously may have taken, let's say, three years to compute now can be done in a month.

SPENCER MICHELS: AMD insists it is gaining on Intel, which maintains three-quarters of the worldwide market. Intel insists it will expand its lead because of its innovations. Both agree that competition is ultimately good for consumers and is really driving the science.

Use of nanotechnology

SPENCER MICHELS: But the game has moved beyond the industrial research labs. The demand for more power, thinner materials, and less heat has inspired nanotech chemists at UCLA and Caltech to search for an entirely new way to make transistors.

Dr. Fraser Stoddart, recently knighted by the queen of England, has invented molecules that can actually act as transistors. A ring of atoms on the molecule moves back and forth when electricity is applied, just like a switch.

FRASER STODDART, California Nanosystems Institute, UCLA: This is the actual molecule with the various different atoms picked out, black for carbon, red for oxygen, white for hydrogen, yellow for sulfur, and blue for nitrogen.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is it unusual to have a ring around a molecule? Or do some molecules have that?

FRASER STODDART: This is very unusual. These are relatively new molecules. There aren't many of them in the world today yet.

SPENCER MICHELS: His molecules are just four nanometers tall, meaning 160,000 of them are the size of a single white blood cell.

FRASER STODDART: We will be generating much less energy than the present-day computers. And you put all of this together, in a situation where you want to have a device that is not big, and you don't have to carry it onto an airplane in a bag, but rather it would be in your pocket or, in fact, may be just the size of your thumbnail.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stoddart says commercial chip makers who had first ignored his work have recently shown interest. Meanwhile, the competition over making fast chips and finding new uses for them intensifies, spurring on an industry that has already changed the way we live.