Chip industry goes all-in on AI

SAN FRANCISCO — Moore’s Law is dead, long live AI. That’s the semiconductor industry’s new rallying cry, sounded at a daylong symposium sponsored by Applied Materials at Semicon West.

“The time of the node train is coming to an end. There needs to be greater collaboration from materials to devices — hardware, software and systems” in new avenues, said Steve Ghanayem, former head of Applied’s transistor and interconnect group now scouting for acquisitions and alliances to take the company in directions beyond Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is not entirely dead, of course. The race to smaller chips continues — for a few.

In a keynote, CEO Gary Dickerson said Applied will announce soon new transistor materials that will reduce leakage current by three orders of magnitude. The news is nearly as big for chip makers as was Intel’s advance in high-k metal gates in 2007. But today such advances are increasingly relevant only for an increasingly small group of designs and companies.

It can cost $100 million to tape out a 7nm chip, and the time from tape out to first silicon is stretching out to four months, said speakers here. “That’s a check few people can write — as startup I can’t afford to write a $100 million check,” said Kurt Busch, chief executive of Syntiant, a designer of an in-memory processor for AI.

“I’m getting less enthusiastic about the latest nodes. They are good for Qualcomm, but that doesn’t apply to everyone else,” said Dileep Bhandarkar, a server processor architect who left the company recently.

“I think this is what the end of Moore’s Law looks like,” said Berkeley professor emeritus David Patterson, noting transistor costs are flat at TSMC and Intel is struggling to produce 10nm chips. “Ninety-five percent of architects think the future is about special-purpose processors,” said Patterson who had a hand in helping Google design its TPU.

Yan Borodovsky, a veteran lithographer recently retired from Intel, blessed the passing of the torch from Moore’s Law to AI as a new guiding light.

“I think something beyond today’s von Neuman architectures will be helped by something more than Moore. For example, memristor crossbars may become a fundamental component for neuromorphic computing…the world beyond Moore’s Law may be about how many kinds of synapses you can put in a given area and how complex they are,” he said, taking a stab at an AI law.

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Applied is preparing new transistor materials to lower leakage. Click to enlarge. (Chart: Applied)

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