Digital Evolution

author: Craig Barrett
published: Feb. 4, 2013,   recorded: February 2007,   views: 2264

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The world is counting on the fulfillment of (Intel co-founder) Gordon Moore’s Law for at least another half century. In Craig Barrett’s view, solutions to the crucial challenges of our time depend on improving on already nano-sized microprocessors every few years.

He points to the astonishing improvements in efficiency and miniaturization in Intel’s semiconductors, which around 1972 came loaded with 2,000 transistors that could be seen with the naked eye. Today’s integrated circuits, 11 generations down the road, bear 1-2 billion transistors that can be seen only with a scanning electron microscope. Intel has had to make other improvements too, says Barrett, as they moved into the nanoscale, attempting to improve functionality and performance without power dissipation. Dual and quad core microprocessors now permit parallel computing within a single PC. Barrett recounts how the first teraflop computer he worked on at Sandia Labs required 10 thousand Pentium processors and took up 2,000 square feet. “The challenge is in the next six to eight years, going to exascale, getting up to a million teraflops,” through multiple core processors, he says, and then there will be a “huge challenge in terms of software paradigms.”

These changes must come, says Barrett, if the world is to confront its “grand challenges,” such as making solar energy affordable, solving issues of carbon sequestration, and figuring out the hydrogen cycle. Those extra teraflops and exaflops will also prove essential to the next generations of visual computing, where scientists (and gamers) want the feel of HD reality on their computer screens. Barrett says silicon photonics will help pave the way for such improvements.

Barrett wants current and emerging technologies put to use as well in education, which he sees as fundamental to helping developing economies. He describes efforts Intel is making to get computers into classrooms around the world, as well as providing training in their use, and helping with broadband connectivity. He also wants computer power brought to bear on the U.S. healthcare scene, which he describes as more of a looming financial crisis than a bankrupt social security system. He’s looking for a political candidate who sees the value of revamping healthcare to take advantage of electronic medical record-keeping, and personalized remote monitoring and diagnostics, “to shift the issue of healthcare from the hospital to individuals and the home.”

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