The Most Important Endeavor in Global Electronics
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Yesterday, I prophecied that microchips were going to expand from the fingernail dimensions of the chip I presented to Ronald Reagan in 1986… to the size of dinner plates at the Mar-a-Lago Club suitable to serve to President Trump.
Based on the new silicon system introduced by Cerebras of Los Altos, California, perhaps I should have said dinner tray.
That’s because it’s the largest integrated circuit ever built; a single system inscribed on a silicon wafer 46,225 mm^2.
The wafer foundry of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) completes the actual fabrication, with a conservative 16 nanometer process (that’s the size of critical features). The overall silicon expanse is about 3,300 times larger than the chip I handed Reagan.
With designed AI datacenter slots, it integrates 1.2 trillion transistors into a single system of 400,000 core processors optimized for machine learning. It boasts 18 gigabytes of on-chip fast memory. The overall bandwidth on the chip, 100 petabits per second, outpaces the bi-section bandwidth of the entire internet.
Its competition, the largest graphics processor made by NVIDIA contains 21.1 billion transistors on 815 mm^2 of silicon.
Of course, that’s more numbers than you need. The main takeaway here is this…
The Dinner Plate Dream
Governing all technologies are the laws of scaling.
If I’m explaining it to Trump, for example, a weaponized drone depends on computations at the nanoscale, miniaturized remorselessly according to Moore’s Law. That’s scaling to the billionths of a meter. But unless it is linked to geosynchronous satellites 26,000 miles away, a drone is useless to disrupt General Qassem Suleimani and his plans to exterminate Israel.
Satellites bring a scale of billions of meters. And the drones don’t work unless linked effectively to detonators of explosives on the scale of human bodies, single feet and inches, meters and centimeters.
This tyranny of scaling afflicts electronics at every level. We need to make some things ever tinier in order to make other things ever more gigantic.
The company Cerebras calls it’s new wafer-scale dinnerplate “giganto.” Equipped with racks of gigantos, a new artificial intelligence (AI) datacenter could theoretically accomplish thousands of times more computations on thousands of times more data in a small fraction of the time.
While pursuing miniaturization into the picowatts and nanometers, the semiconductor industry has all along been tantalized by this dinner plate dream.
While nerds toss their frisbees across their space-ship campus lawns in Mountain View and Cupertino, they really yearn to be spinning giganto silicon frisbees. They know they can’t do it in the ever-shrinking domains of wafer fabs still permitted them by California’s green police.
But perhaps they can send the schematics for fabrication at TSMC.
This dream is not hard to understand.
The Faster, Lighter, Microchip Ideal
The microchip industry essentially manufactures what are called “die.” These exist on the wafers to perform specific functions; stark naked silicon chips where everything is ideal.
On die, every dimension is controlled to the nanometer and transistors can theoretically switch at speeds in the hundreds of gigahertz, billions of cycles per second. This is at least fifty times faster than existing systems. Rather than fiber optic lines on telephone poles, communications on die run down tiny almost invisible traces microns apart.
This is the ideal world chip designers create. But in the real world, the industry seizes their precious die and solders them into plastic packages some 20 times larger and heavier. The packages scale the micron-sized die traces through a clunky ball grid array into millimeter-gauge wires. Engineers then attach the packages to fiberglass printed circuit boards and cooling systems measured by tens of inches and centimeters.
Close to ninety-nine percent of the space and weight in an electronic system comes from fiberglass and plastic… not from the elegant silicon we’d wish to see.
The reason for this encapsulation of beautiful naked die into dull black packages strewn across relatively vast and wirey printed circuit boards is the need to connect and scale to the real world.
Gigantic power plants generate the juice to run the chips. Relatively large and apparently unshrinkable passive components such as capacitors and resistors are needed to refine the power into the exquisitely exacting currents and voltages required by the nanometer devices on the die.
Fortunately, the tides are changing.
The Power to Change Everything
Chased by rivals around the world, Cerebras is first to create actual wafer-scale systems that throw away the plastic package and the printed circuit board and work directly with bare die on silicon wafers.
This is the most important endeavor in global electronics.
If engineers can banish the plastic package and the printed circuit board, all information systems can become lighter, faster, lower latency, and more effective.
As Cerebras contends, the massive challenges of widespread machine learning will particularly benefit.
There’s some irony here. Measured by performance per square millimeter, bigger will translate into smaller, lighter, more powerful systems. The silicon wafer will be vastly larger than usual chips, but each portion of it will be able to perform orders of magnitude faster.
That datacenter filled with racks of gigantos can be smaller and drastically lower power than the prevailing datacenters.
We will discover that the so-called slowdown in microchip progress depicted as the “end of Moore’s Law” is an illusion. Indeed, progress will speed up again and new opportunities will proliferate.
I have already shown that measured by time-prices—the hours and minutes that a typical worker has to labor to buy goods and services—global technical progress has been accelerating.
The time price is the true price. Companies like Cerebras show why. Perhaps it can even have a breakthrough chip IPO.
But this is only an early phase of a fabulous story. Stay tuned.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy