U.S. research lab focuses on building computers of the future

Sandia National Lab scientists study brain-inspired and quantum computers

Computer scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have launched an effort to develop whole new types of computers that will be used 10, 25 or even 50 years from now.

Researchers at Sandia are developing next-generation supercomputers, nano-based computing, quantum computing and brain-inspired computing. Sandia, in Albuquerque, N.M., is a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy and focuses its work on technology that supports national security.

"We think that by combining capabilities in microelectronics and computer architecture, Sandia can help initiate the jump to the next technology curve sooner and with less risk," said Rob Leland, head of Sandia's Computing Research Center.

Erik DeBenedictis, a research scientist at Sandia, said it's critical to focus on what might be the next generation of computers because traditional computers won't be able to keep up with Moore's Law much longer. (Moore's law was posited by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who predicted in 1965 that that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every two years and could be done inexpensively.

For years, industry analysts and insiders have claimed that the death of Moore's Law is imminent. So far, the industry has been able to keep up with it. DeBenedictis said he believes that time is running out.

"It's absolutely clear that the reduction in the size of wires is going to end pretty soon," he told Computerworld. "You can't have wires that are smaller than an atom. And now they're getting small enough that they can't conduct electricity very well. A reason the law is slowing down is that we can make transistors smaller but their energy consumption doesn't go down as fast as it used to."

That means there will continue to be advances in traditional computing, but they won't be as fast-paced or revolutionary as they have been.

To continue the pace of advancements, the computing industry will have to turn at least some of its attention to new computer platforms.

"In order to get the kind of performance we need to take on new problems in science, not to mention to drive the massive amounts of data that we're all generating and using in our everyday lives, we'll need to have new kinds of technology that are much more efficient and that can be eventually manufactured at an affordable cost," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group.

He added that we're not at the end of the line with Moore's Law, but he can see ahead to where it will end if the industry continues to incrementally shrink and then speed up frequencies in CPUs.

Because of that, now is the time to push research into new types of computers.

"Yes, we're definitely at a point where we could use some breakthroughs," said Olds. "I believe that we'll reach the point of diminishing returns from 'shrinks' at about the 9nm to 10nm process level. This means in the absence of a technological breakthrough, we'll need to improve other parts of the computing process to keep us on the same price/performance curve as Moore's Law."

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