DARPA Continues Investment in Post-Moore’s Technologies

By George Leopold

July 24, 2017

The U.S. military long ago ceded dominance in electronics innovation to Silicon Valley, the DoD-backed powerhouse that has driven microelectronic generation for decades. With Moore’s Law clearly running out of steam, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is attempting to reinvigorate and leverage a vibrant domestic chip sector with a $200 million initiative designed among other things to push the boundaries of chip architectures like GPUs.

DARPA recently announced that its Electronics Resurgence Initiative seeks to move beyond Moore’s Law chip scaling. Among the new fronts to be opened by the defense agency are extending GPU frameworks that underlie machine-learning tools to develop “reconfigurable physical structures that adjust to the needs of the software they support.”

While it remains unclear how enterprises might benefit directly from the chip initiative overseen by DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office, the agency does have a reputation dating back to the earliest days of the Internet for funding high-risk technology R&D that eventually makes its way into the commercial sector.

The DARPA effort also attempts to lay the groundwork for a post Moore’s Law era where, according to the agency, research will focus on “integrating different semiconductor materials on individual chips, ‘sticky logic’ devices that combine processing and memory functions and vertical rather than only planar integration of microsystem components.”

As the focus of chip technology zeroes in on data driven enterprise applications, DARPA said it would cast a wider net to harness semiconductor innovation that would lead to a post-Moore’s Law generation of microelectronic systems benefitting military and commercial users.

The effort runs in parallel with recent attempts by DoD to tap into the sustained burst of technology and development innovation in Silicon Valley. As the technology entrepreneur Steve Blank has documented, the 20th century electronics explosion was initially funded by the U.S military beginning as early as World War II, continuing throughout the Cold War confrontation with the former Soviet Union.

The DARPA effort primarily seeks to establish new development models that go beyond chip scaling. “We need to break away from tradition and embrace the kinds of innovations that the new initiative is all about,” emphasized William Chappell, director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office. The program will “embrace progress through circuit specialization and to wrangle the complexity of the next phase of advances, which will have broad implications on both commercial and national defense interests,” Chappell added.

The post-Moore’s Law research effort will complement the recently created Joint University Microelectronics Program (JUMP), a research effort in basic electronics being co-funded by DARPA and Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), an industry consortium based in Durham, N.C. Among the chip makers contributing to JUMP are IBM, Intel Corp., Micron Technology and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

SRC members and DARPA are expected to kick in more than $150 million for the five-year project. Focus areas include high-frequency sensor networks, distributed and cognitive computing along with “intelligent memory and storage.”

As DARPA continues to invest in device technology, it is also attempting to leverage what Chappell calls the “software-defined world.” The agency sees virtualization and other software technologies as one way of addressing skyrocketing weapons costs. Hence, the agency is also investing more research funding in areas such as algorithm development and circuit design for applications such as dynamic spectrum sharing, a capability that would allow the military to squeeze more capacity out of crowded electromagnetic spectrum.

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