Daily Archives: April 25, 2011

50th anniversary of the microchip

I just did a Radio 4 Today programme to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the microchip patent. I shared the event with Professor Steve Furber, from Manchester University, who was involved in the ARM chip invention. I am a big fan of ARM so I don’t want to criticise them, but I was talking about the next 50 years, not the last, and one of the ideas I brought up was smart yoghurt. Steve’s response, was ‘well, I am a engineer, and my futurology is based on what we can do… and I don’t expect to be using yoghurt in my career.’. Sadly, the Today programme being what it is, you rarely get more than one comment, so I didn’t get a chance to reply. So, just for the record, Prof Furber, I am an engineer too . I have also worked all my working life in IT engineering, for 30 years. Along the way I invented evolutionary computing in 1987, text messaging (1991), and was involved in the design of 20GB/s to the home telecom chips in 1985-86, and I invented a chip design to lock onto the centre of nanosecond pulses in 1987, and numerous other inventions such as active skin (2000), the active contact lens (1991) and smart yogurt (1997). So I don’t use a crystal ball as my source of data. I use 30 years of experience as an IT engineer and inventor. If you think smart yoghurt is not likely to happen in your career, well we’ll have to wait and see, it depends how long you continue working I guess. But your successors will see it in theirs. For them, the idea of genetically modifying bacteria to assemble circuits inside itself will be unsurprising. The idea of linking them together using optical signals into scalable computers will be pretty common thinking. That is what 50 years does. Ideas which sounded ridiculous become routine and even old fashioned in 50 years. If we can’t make transistors smaller, we can stack them in 3d. We can replace wires with light beams. We can suspend millions of processing chips in gel as out future computer. Moore’s law has a few more decades to run yet, but each time we approach a limit it requires some change of approach to push the limits further.

So what else can we do apart from smart yoghurt? You can do active skin, with 10 micron chips containing hundreds of thousands of transistors embedded in the skin in among skin cells, using infra-red to communicate with each other. They will analyse blood passing in capillaries. They will monitor and record nerve signals associated with sensations, and allow them to be replayed at will. We will embed chips in our corneas to raster scan lasers onto our retinas to create full 3d high res video overlays on what we see in the real world. And we will even have frivolous stuff like smart make-up, aligning tiny particles with electric fields generate by active skin underlays printed via ink jet printers onto our skin surface.

I look forward to the next 50 years of chips. They will change our lives even more than the last 50. Companies like ARM will hopefully be in the front runners still, but they will only manage this if Prof Furber’s successors grab the potential technology and force it to do their will. They won’t if they think Moore’s law has run its course because we can’t shrink feature size any smaller.