recommended reading

These Molecule-sized Wires Could Stop the Computer Industry From Hitting a Brick Wall

The DNA-sized nanowires in the center of this magnified chip could keep the electronics industry from burning out.

The DNA-sized nanowires in the center of this magnified chip could keep the electronics industry from burning out. // MITRE

In case you missed it, the end of the age of ever-faster computers is nigh. In his speech (pdf) at last summer’s Hot Chip conference, Bob Colwell, Intel’s former chief architect, said Moore’s law—the prediction that computer power doubles every 18-24 months, which has held largely true since Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made it in 1965—will cease to hold by 2020.

Colwell’s prognosis is dire, but not everyone is accepting it. On Jan. 23, a joint team from Harvard and the non-profit defense contractor MITRE challenged the repeal of Moore’s law with an ultra-dense, nano-scale processor that could add time to computing’s Doomsday Clock.

The sheer number of circuits that can fit on a processor is called the transistor count. Generally speaking, Moore’s law states that processors will double their transistor count every couple of years. A transistor is basically a switch that both stores and processes data; the more of them a computer contains, the more memory and power it has.

The problem is, processors are built with silicon. As silicon transistors get more and more dense, they need more power and better cooling. In other words, it’s not that we can’t design faster chips, it’s just too expensive and difficult to keep them running.

The Harvard/MITRE team’s chip—called the nanoFSM—saves power, and creates less heat, through a combination of size and design. Not only do the tiny wire transistors need less energy, but they are “nonvolatile.” This means that they don’t need a constant electrical current to remember how they’ve been programmed, unlike regular transistors. The nanowires are so-named because they are measured on the nanometer scale, along with DNA and viruses. Where an Intel Core i7—a chip at the heart of high-end personal computers—is roughly the size of a small coin, the prototype nanoFSM would be a speck of dust on the coin’s face (though it’s also less powerful).

Computers can’t keep getting faster forever, but it’s no surprise that the industry wants to stave off the end of the Moore’s law era as long as it can. Without the constant doubling of computer power we wouldn’t have iPads, IBM’s Watson supercomputer, or the internet. Engineers started worrying about the end of Moore’s law around 2005, when the ever-smaller chips stopped being able to outrun the laws of physics that govern heat dissipation.

Nanowires aren’t new, but this is the first time they’ve been made into transistors that can do math and remember information. This technically makes the nanoFSM a computer, but barely so. Currently, the chip is little more sophisticated than all but the earliest digital processors. If it’s going to save Moore’s law, nanoFSM’s creators still need to prove that they can scale this technology up to handle heavier workloads without succumbing to the same problems that threaten the law now—let alone completely new ones.

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.