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IBM spends $3 billion to push the far future of computer chips

Published on July 9, 2014, by

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IBM will invest $3 billion over five years to develop processors with much smaller, more tightly packed electronics than today’s models, and to sustain computing progress even after today’s manufacturing technology runs out of steam.

The first goal is to build chips whose electronic components, called transistors, have features measuring just 7 nanometers, the company announced Wednesday. For comparison, that distance is about a thousandth the width of a human hair, a tenth the width of a virus particle, or the width of 16 potassium atoms side by side.

The second goal is to choose among a range of more radical departures from today’s silicon chip technology — a monumental engineering challenge necessary to sustain progress in the computing industry. Among the options are carbon nanotubes and graphene; silicon photonics; quantum computing; brainlike architectures; and silicon substitutes that could run faster even if components aren’t smaller.

“In the next 10 years, we believe there will be fundamentally new systems that are much more efficient at solving problems or solving problems that are unsolvable today,” T.C. Chen, IBM Research’s vice president of science and technology, told CNET.

Scientists and engineers have postponed the transition to this “postsilicon” future many times, but atomic-level constraints eventually will block today’s basic manufacturing approach. Already quantum-physics problems like electrons “tunneling” from one place to another complicate chip design.

Moore’s Law, an observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, seems almost a given in the computing industry. But it takes sustained work in research and development, and it’s not easy. Even the industry leader, Intel, has troubles: last year, it delayed the debut of its 14nm “Broadwell” chip designs from 2013 until 2014 because of a defect issue.

That steady progress is tremendously important. Cramming more transistors into a given surface area means mobile phones can play video instead of just make phone calls, watches can notify you of appointments instead of just tell time, and authentication chips can be built into credit cards. If Moore’s Law fizzled, the arrival of everything from supercheap smartphones to Google’s world domination could be slowed.

The 7nm technology is three generations of manufacturing into the future from IBM’s current flagship processor, the Power8, built with a 22nm process. IBM’s research and development work will focus on finding the materials and processes necessary to make 7nm chips economically viable, the company said.

Applied Materials, which manufactures chipmaking tools, envisions chips made with a 3nm manufacturing process.
Applied Materials, which manufactures chipmaking tools, envisions chips made with a 3nm (“n3″) manufacturing process. Applied Materials

“The question is not if we will introduce 7-nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost,” said John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM Research, in a statement.

Big Blue’s money will fund teams at labs in New York, California, and Switzerland, and the company will hire new staff for the work.

On the road to 7nm chips will be stops at 14nm and 10nm. The map gets fuzzier after 7nm. Intel expects at least one more step, the 5nm manufacturing process, and chip manufacturing toolmaker Applied Materials has discussed 3nm after that (PDF). But IBM didn’t specify what exactly it thinks will come after 7nm.

IBM is a leader in materials science, chemistry, physics, and nanotechnology, and it boasts of having twice the patents on postsilicon processor approaches as any competitor. However, it hasn’t matched the manufacturing volume of today’s powerhouses: Intel, Samsung, and TSMC.

IBM justifies its chip business with a higher-level mandate, though. It doesn’t just make chips and sell them, it makes chips and uses them in computers that serve other priorities — big-data analysis machines for corporate customers and supercomputers to simulate the human brain for government-funded research, for example. And major changes in manufacturing technology could reorder the current power structure.

IBM's current Power8 processors are built on a 22nm process. Big Blue expects to use more advanced 14nm, 10nm, and 7nm processes later.
IBM’s current Power8 processors are built on a 22nm process. Big Blue expects to use more-advanced 14nm, 10nm, and 7nm processes later. IBM

IBM’s new research will investigate several avenues beyond today’s manufacturing technology:

  • Neurosynaptic computing: IBM is working on technology that moves away from today’s decades-old one-step-after-another approach to a more brainlike design that relies on a computing equivalent of brain cells, called neurons, and their electrical communication pathways, called synapses. IBM ultimately hopes to make a system with 10 billion neurons operating in parallel using 100 trillion synapses, consuming less than a kilowatt of power, and occupying less than two liters of volume.
  • Quantum computing: This unusual technology relies on the shift from today’s digital, using bits that represent either a zero or a one. Instead, quantum computing uses qubits that can hold both those values at once, which means they could be used in principle to perform many calculations at the same time. Some experimental quantum computers have arrived on the market — Google and NASA have one $15 million model from D-Wave — but they’re still very much an unknown quantity.
  • III-V materials: Today’s chips usually use carbon, which is a member of group IV of the periodic table of the elements. Faster chips can be built using elements from groups III and V — gallium arsenide, for example. They run faster because electron mobility is higher, which determines how fast the transistors can switch on and off. However, today they’re not economical for mainstream electronics. IBM thinks they could be, and for lowering the power consumption of computing.
  • Carbon nanotubes: Carbon atoms can bind together into a tubular structure called a carbon nanotube (CNT). For IBM’s post-7nm chips, CNTs are a candidate for replacing silicon in the role of chip semiconductor — a material that either conducts electricity or not, depending on external circumstances. Semiconductors are the core part of chip transistors, which act like tiny on-off switches. Nanotubes might be usable for much smaller transistors, and their fast switching speeds could mean a fivefold or tenfold performance boost over silicon.
  • Graphene: A close relative of carbon nanotubes is graphene, a flat lattice of carbon atoms just one atom thick. Because electrons move fast in graphene, IBM hopes the material could be used for quick-response tasks like managing high-frequency radio signals.
  • Tunnel field effect transistors: Tunneling is a problem today, but an approach called tunnel field effect transistors (TFETs) uses the phenomenon to drive a transistor’s electrical current. A voltage difference across chip elements drives electrical current in today’s chips, but these “steep slope” devices could require a lower voltage difference and therefore reduce the waste heat that holds chips back. IBM thinks TFETs can cut power consumption by a factor of 100.
  • Silicon photonics: Photons — light particles — travel faster than electrons, and they don’t produce the debilitating waste heat of electricity flowing through wires. That’s the core advantage of silicon photonics, which uses chips to generate and receive signals. An added bonus: you can transmit multiple frequencies of light, packing more information into a signal. Fiber-optic networking is in widespread use today, but it’s economical only over long distances; IBM is among those working to shorten links to connect computers within data centers and later connect components within a single computer.

IBM wouldn’t comment on when or how it plans to commercialize the new technology, which is still in the hands of its labs, not its product design or manufacturing group.

But it’s clearly feeling the time pressure.

“We anticipate that in order to scale to 7nm and perhaps below for the industry, we will need to have the semiconductor architectures and new manufacturing tools and techniques in place by the end of the decade,” Chen said. “That’s why it is critical for us to make the significant investment now into the research and early-stage development to demonstrate what 7nm innovations will be useful, before it can even be commercialized.”

original article via: CNET

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USA soccer team comes up short in 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium

Published on July 1, 2014, by

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At the end, the Americans fell to grass because they had nothing left. They somehow had made it this far, to the Round of 16.

Spent after a 2-1 loss to Belgium, after 120 minutes, the U.S. players finally got up and exchanged jerseys. This was a game to remember, in so many imperfect ways.

When Julian Green scored in the 107th minute, the Americans had hope, but simply ran out of time. Once again they were eliminated in extra time of the World Cup.

From the start, it was clear. If the Americans were to beat Belgium and its galaxy of young stars, Tim Howard would have to be the best player on the field. Through 90 minutes, he was just that as the Americans forced Belgium into extra time after a scoreless tie.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said an emotional Howard after the game. “I don’t think we could give anymore. It’s heartbreaking. It hurts.”

After all those shots, “levee is going to break at some point,” he said.

“Obviously, it’s a bummer,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We were so close. I think we can all be very proud of this team. What they’ve done the past couple of weeks has been unbelievable, outstanding. They pushed Belgium to the limit…it could have gone either way and this is how these knockout games are.

“At the end you need a little bit of luck, that it’s going your way,” he said. “Today we didn’t have that.”

At the end of the game after 16 saves, Howard was named Man of the Match, in a performance that will be remembered as one of the best by a U.S. keeper. Belgium had 38 attempts on goal, the U.S. had 15.

In Salvador, the city of salvation, Howard almost single-handedly saved the day for the Americans. With 104 international appearances and 55 wins, both U.S. records for his position, Howard’s legacy is secure. A trip to the quarterfinals would have boosted it considerably. But his 16 saves and impossible leaps and tips over the post, did the same.

“We know how important Tim is to us,” Klinsmann said. “He’s done a tremendous job keeping us in that game on many occasions. He was just doing his job. Everybody on the field gave everything they had. You just need a little bit of luck and we didn’t have that today. But I think everybody can be proud of their team.”

Howard praised the Belgians, saying they were “fantastic.”

“The dream falls short, but this is an incredible group,” Howard, 35, said of his teammates. “I will never forget this night.”

In the opening minute, Howard made his first save of the day on challenge from Divock Origi. And so it went during a frenetic game which was riveting until the final second.

Finally, in the 93rd minute, Belgium broke through as Kevin DeBruyne found a pocket, past Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and squeezed it inside Howard’s right-hand post for the goal.

Belgium then poured in on in the 106th minute when Romelu Lukaku, still fuming for not getting the start, took out his frustration on the ball with a close-range goal. Belgium went ahead 2-0, and the Americans’ hopes dimmed.

The Americans had hoped to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, but on this day, the better team won. Belgium, considered a dark horse at the start of the tournament, will play Argentina, and Lionel Messi, on Saturday in Brasilia.

Though the Americans will leave Brazil disappointed, failing to capitalize on the enormous interest back home, few expected the Americans to get this far, to still be alive after the Group of Death.

To his credit, coach Jurgen Klinsmann seemingly pushed the right buttons. When he brought Green onto the roster, and kept Landon Donovan home, he was widely criticized. But in extra time, he looked like a genius.

Klinsmann never met a line-up he didn’t want to jumble and Tuesday’s was no exception. Geoff Cameron and Gonzalez were both in the starting line-up, and defensive specialist Kyle Beckerman sat his first game. Jozy Altidore, and his strained left hamstring, was deemed fit to play but did not see action.

In the first half, the Americans lost their best fullback Fabian Johnson, who went out with a strained hamstring. DeAndre Yedlin, all of 20 and once a long shot to make the roster, found himself battling against mega-star Eden Hazard.

The Red Devils are full of stars from big clubs around the world, from Atletico Madrid to Manchester City to Bayern Munich to Chelsea. The U.S. has a decidedly lower profile. The team’s best field players Tuesday: One is in between contracts and last played for Puebla in Mexico (DaMarcus Beasley). Another plays for Sporting Kansas City (Matt Besler).

On paper, and in the number of zeros on their paychecks, the Americans were overmatched. According to Transfermarkt — a site that estimates what players’ values would be on transfer market — Belgium’s roster was the sixth-highest in the World Cup, the U.S. just 26th. Consider that Yedlin, with the Seattle Sounders, earns $92,000, which is about what Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini probably spends yearly on hair products alone.

Beasley, at 32, proved that he is indeed ageless. At left back, he saved the day on a probable goal in the first half and ran tirelessly as if it was 2002 all over again.   He became the first American to play in four World Cups and through four games he played every minute.

original article via: USA TODAY

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FIFA World Cup Has First Water Break Ever (USA vs Portugal game)

Published on June 23, 2014, by

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The FIFA World Cup had a first, as the referee called a time out for players to take the first ever water break in the history of the World Cup. This occurred during the USA-Portugal game. Fans and announcers were confused and surprised with the call, but the players were not complaining. In the scorching heat that some of these games are taking place in, it is not only necessary for the players to have water breaks for their health and performance, but it is also now a court law.

On Friday, a court in Brazil made the order for FIFA to include mandatory breaks for the players during World Cup games when playing in extreme temperatures. The court issued a saying that required breaks to take place at or around the 30 minute mark of playing time during the FIFA World Cup matches. These breaks should last about 30 seconds and there should be one break per half. The court reiterated several times how vital it is for the players to stay hydrated while playing in these games.

These water breaks become required as soon as temperatures are at or about 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit, 32 degrees Celsius. This rule takes into account the time of day, cloudiness, wind, rain, humidity, and location. The ruling was finally agreed upon after two hours of negotiating took place which involved FIFA prosecutors as well as local prosecutors.

FIFA’s organization stated how it had previously issued the recommendation for water breaks in extreme weather conditions and how the labor court had simply established the existing procedures. However, the labor court claims that FIFA never had any intention to impose the water breaks during the World Cup games. The lack of water breaks made it necessary for the court to intervene. FIFA has also stated how there has not been a single match in the World Cup so far with temperatures reaching above 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 28 degrees Celsius, according to the heat stress index. Due to the temperatures of today’s game of USA vs. Portugal, it was required for FIFA to have its first water break ever in World Cup history.

Labor court prosecutors wanted the rule to be that water breaks would be required once temperatures reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 degrees Celsius, however the judge went with the FIFA’s request as there was no proof showing the difference would affect the health of the players. FIFA World Cup was pleased with the judge’s decision to favor with the organization’s rule. Labor court enforcers are taking this new ruling so seriously that an issue of $90 thousand must be paid by FIFA for every match in which the rule is not imposed. The federal court also insisted how the world governing body of soccer is in charge of checking the temperature during games by using equipment that has been pre-certified. FIFA has agreed to respect the court’s decision in its entirety.

The players’ union of Brazil initially requested that FIFA change game times for all matches that were scheduled to begin at 1 pm, as this was subjecting athletes to the risk of playing in extreme heat. FIFA stated prior to the court’s ruling that it would not alter the game times or enforce water breaks it had spent approximately two years working to create the tournament’s schedule. The lack of water breaks in the FIFA World Cup were partly due to the desire to adhere to the tournament’s strict schedule. FIFA stated that while creating the schedule, the health of the players was always considered.

The water break during the USA-Portugal match was an easy decision. Reporters covering the game even said that the break should have been taken earlier, as it was not called until close to the 40 minute mark. The break, lasting maybe no more than 30 seconds, was a call that everyone on the field agreed with. Today marked the FIFA World Cup having its first water break ever in World Cup history, and it will not be the last if temperatures continue the way they have in Brazil.

original article via: GUARDIANLV