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Billion-bit chips to bring computational plenty to everyday life

STANFORD -- The time is approaching when manufacturers will be able to cram 1 billion bits of processing capability onto a single, affordable silicon chip. Who can use such a "gigachip"?

Plenty of people - everyone who now uses a cordless phone, a notepad computer or a karaoke sing-along device, as well as hundreds of products for work and play that are still just gleams in their inventors' eyes.

"The electronics revolution will continue into the gigachip age, and it will bring computational plenty into everyday life," says Pallab K. Chatterjee, vice president and director of research and development at Texas Instruments in Dallas.

Chatterjee was the keynote banquet speaker at the annual advisory meeting of the Stanford Center for Integrated Systems, held at Stanford's Faculty Club Nov. 8. The center serves as a link between semiconductor manufacturers and Stanford scientists and engineers; advisers include representatives of most of the nation's semiconductor and computer manufacturing firms.

Main markets to merge

In the Gigachip Age, Chatterjee told his colleagues, the three main markets for integrated circuits will begin to merge. Computers, consumer products and communications services will be linked together by advanced digital signal processing. The difference will blur between a high-powered workstation performing advanced computational tasks and a "play station" used for entertainment or consumer services.

In either case, the user will expect the work- or play- station to be affordable, wireless, portable and easily linked to networks of information or services. To the user, the new products will seem transparently easy to use: stocked with 1 or 2 billion-bit chips, a notepad computer can be programmed to recognize voice commands or translate handwriting without a hitch. A business traveler could carry her office workstation's entire memory on a device the size of a credit card: she could plug it into a keyboard and video screen in her hotel room and phone home for updates.

"Almost all these products will involve no more than a couple of gigachips," Chatterjee said. "The system is the chip."

By the year 2000, Chatterjee predicted, two major marketplaces will thrive thanks to the extra computing power of the gigachip. One will be the information-delivery market, bringing computers and entertainment together as the distinction blurs between electronic mail, broadband television and each individual's "video jukebox."

A second major market will involve smart control systems: reliable, highly sensitive and easy-to-use controllers installed on semiconductor manufacturing lines, in automobiles, in karaoke players. Already, a top-of-the-line BMW automobile contains 60 microprocessors monitoring 800 sensors. Most drivers are not aware of the monitors until they hear a signal that something has gone wrong. "Smart systems will provide this kind of control reliably and transparently to the user," Chatterjee said.

More than brute force

Manufacturers who thrive in these markets will have to offer more than the brute force of a billion-bit chip, Chatterjee said. He predicted some American semiconductor manufacturers will be leaders in the field because they will be able to offer customized chips, assembled in "mega-chip" blocks. The customer will choose which functions will be programmable and which will be pre- programmed into the silicon.

"The most leverage will come from getting the biggest bang for the chip," he said. "In the 1980s, we had general purpose processing. [In the 1990s], anything that's successful will not be software when it goes into production. [A good idea] starts programmable, but it becomes hardware."

The other key to success in this new era will come not from silicon but from signal processing. Chatterjee said that efforts now under way to standardize computer and video network communications, and to establish standards for video/audio compression specifications, will be vital as the demand increases for new products that overlap the boundaries between computers, entertainment and communications.



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