What's Next After Moore Is No More?

July 2015
Shamik Das
Shamik Das

"My gut tells me Moore's Law has five to seven years left in its lifespan," says Shamik Das, co-leader of the MITRE Innovation Program's Electronic Systems and Technology Innovation Area. "So what will be the next Moore's law? What will replace the silicon wafer as the next driver for the electronics industry? These are questions without good answers at the moment."

Moore's Law states that roughly every two years the number of devices it's possible to fit on a computer chip will double. It's propelled advances in the semiconductor industry for half a century. But as the lead for MITRE's Nanosystems Group, Das is looking ahead to the next half century, searching for the answer of "What's next?"

Established in 1992, the Nanosystems Group is dedicated to breaking new ground in nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on the nanometer scale, by which brand new materials can be constructed molecule by molecule. Das thinks such a new material will be the key to expanding computing power past the demise of Moore's Law. "If you can manipulate the structure of a material at the very smallest scale, you can create materials that behave in unique ways.

"What we in the Nanosystems Group are trying to do is to build computers and other systems using these unique, engineered nanomaterials."

A Block of the Old Chips

Das first began rethinking the computer chip as a graduate student in electrical engineering at MIT. Working from the premise that the lower the distance between computer chips, the more efficiently a computer can operate, Das designed a "3-D" computer chip. "If you pop the cover off your laptop, you'll see the semiconductor chips laid out flat side to side. If you want to send a signal from one corner of the chip array to the opposite corner, it takes some time."

So Das designed chips that would be forged together into a block to reduce the distances between circuits. "It's the same idea as with skyscrapers. If you had to fit a bunch of people into a city, you wouldn't have them living in a row of one-story houses. You'd pack them together in high-rises."

Cracking the Case

Das decided early in his education to focus on the hardware side of computers rather than the software side. "I've been cracking open computer cases to poke around inside since I was in middle school." He realizes that students today may be tempted to make the opposite choice, considering how more economical it is to tinker around with apps instead of chips. "The cost of entry is much lower with software than with hardware," he admits.

But he thinks technologies like 3-D printing will make hardware design a more accessible field. And he believes students will discover the hardware side is where the most interesting challenges lie. "The next generation of devices is going to require a lot of interdisciplinary thinking. It will give designers a chance to tinker at the chemical, structural, and electrical levels."

Bigger and Balanced

When Das graduated 11 years ago, he faced the choice of pursuing an academic career, going to private industry, or coming to MITRE to join the Nanosystems Group. He took MITRE's offer because in his mind it represented the best of all worlds. MITRE offered Das the unique opportunity to pursue research, to publish papers, to work with students (Das co-wrote the papers in the links with participants in MITRE's intern program), and to collaborate on building the world's first nanoprocessor. "MITRE was the only place that provided that balance," he says.

He was also quick to recognize the benefits of working in the public interest. "You're not thinking about the bottom line. You're not responding to supply and demand. You're not worried about profit margin. The public mission is about seeing the bigger picture, about solving the long-term problem."

And when your long-term problem is finding a replacement for a 50-year old law, you need the freedom to see as big of a picture as possible.

—by Christopher Lockheardt

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