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An IBM chip made using graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms with tremnedous capabilities for conducting heat and electricity. Photo Cred: IBM
An IBM chip made using graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms with tremnedous capabilities for conducting heat and electricity. Photo Cred: IBM

 

 

The manufactures of silicon processor chips have operated under Gordon Moore’s 1965 observation that engineers would be able to double the number of transistors in a one-inch silicon roughly every 2 years. According to Forbes Companies like Intel INTC +1.36% and IBM have proven  Moore correct by cramming ever-smaller transistors onto silicon wafers at roughly  Moore’s projected rate. We currently can make chips with transistor gates just 22 nanometers wide, with 14 nm chips coming soon. (For reference, an average strand of human hair is about 100,000 nm wide.)

As of Wednesday July 9th, when IBM announced it’s new budget for research on non-silicon based processors,  their  executives, engineers and researchers are making a $3 billion that they can improve upon Moore’s law. These technologies would take the form of quantum computing, neurosynaptic computing based on the human brain, and silicon photonics that transmit pulses of light instead of using physical copper wire. IBM is also focused on replacing the materials used in chips themselves, using carbon nanotubes instead of transistors and graphene as a replacement for silicon semiconductors.

 

According to Wired  If you ask the world’s largest chipmaker, Intel, the company will tell you that Moore’s Law is alive and well, and that it expects to crank out faster and faster chips for the foreseeable future.

So why are Intel and IBM on different r&d planets? The smart people at Wired conjecture that most likely, it comes down to the different business models of Intel and IBM. “Although both companies make their own microprocessors, Intel rules the high-volume desktop market. It sells server chips too, but at higher volumes than IBM. Big Blue, on the other hand, is looking to carve out profitable niches for its systems, taking advantages of its expertise in software and system design to build unique systems. It’s looking for competitive differentiation—not necessarily high-volume sales.”

The takeaway:  if quantum computers, carbon nanotubes, and computers modeled on the human brain are what it takes to get there, then IBM may be buying itself a $3 billion head start.