Since the 1950s, silicon has been the preferred medium of computing circuitry. While transistor density has continued to increase according to Moore’s law, the technology is beginning to reveal its limitations, resulting in increased heat and energy consumption to achieve more compute power.
This has prompted physicist Michio Kaku to claim that advances in computing will need to originate from an alternative material. He shared his thoughts in an interview with The Daily Galaxy. According to Kaku:
“In about ten years or so, we will see the collapse of Moore’s Law. In fact, already we see a slowing down of Moore’s Law. Computer power simply cannot maintain its rapid exponential rise using standard silicon technology.”
The strains on silicon are leading to new types of designs from chipmakers. Last June, Intel VP Kirk Skaugen admitted the exascale roadmap would not be able to rely on Moore’s Law alone. At ISC 2011 though, he introduced the company’s tri-gate technology, an advancement that maintained Intel’s breakneck pace for transistor scaling.
Kaku agrees that tri-gate, or 3D chip technology will alleviate some issues, but still views it as a stopgap solution. Like others, he believes that heat, leakage, and the inexorable laws of quantum mechanics will eventually spell silicon’s demise. Until then, the physicist says manufacturers will engage in more innovative practices to squeeze silicon to its physical limits. These approaches, including parallel computing, could be tapped out by the end of the next decade.
Although the Sun may eventually set on the era of silicon-based computing, a number of potential alternatives are on the horizon. Kaku mentions machines based on protein, DNA, and optical devices as possible replacements. When the time comes to transition to a new medium, he thinks the world will migrate to 3-dimensional chips. That technology would be followed by molecular computers and, eventually, by quantum computers around the end of the 21st century.
Kaku certainly predicts a dark future for silicon-based semiconductor technology. Regardless of the underlying technology though, he remains optimistic that future innovations will lead to new types computers even more powerful than the ones we use today. While silicon will drive the first exascale system, a new medium is likely to emerge for the zettascale and then yottascale eras.