Sandia computing experts have launched an effort to help discover what computers of the future might look like, from next-generation supercomputers to systems that learn on their own—new machines that do more while using less energy. “We think that by combining capabilities in microelectronics and computer architecture, Sandia can help initiate the jump to the next technology curve sooner and with less risk,” said Rob Leland, head of Sandia’s Computing Research Center.
Sandia experts expect multiple computing device-level technologies in the future, rather than one dominant architecture. About a dozen possible next-generation candidates exist, including tunnel FETs (field effect transistors, in which the output current is controlled by a variable electric field), carbon nanotubes, superconductors, and fundamentally new approaches, such as quantum computing and brain-inspired computing.
Sandia is well positioned to work on future computing technology due to its broad and long history in supercomputers, from architecture to algorithms to applications. Leland said Sandia can play a key role because of that far-reaching background and two key facilities:
- the Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications (MESA) complex, which performs multidisciplinary microsystems research and development and fabricates chips to test ideas; and
- the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology (CINT), a DOE Office of Science national user facility operated by Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
No one is sure what tomorrow’s high-performance computers will look like. “We have some ideas, of course, and we have different camps of opinion about what it might look like, but we’re really right in the midst of figuring that out,” Leland said. Whatever technology comes next must be broadly adopted so it will drive continual improvements, similar to the way the 1947 invention of the transistor transformed society. It’s not enough to have a device that’s fast; it has to be something that can be built into a complete computer system, John Aidun, Sandia’s Advanced Device Technologies Dept. manager, said.
While industry views a beyond-transistor technology as something far off, Sandia’s national security interests anticipate bigger changes will be needed sooner than industry would develop them on its own, Aidun said. He estimated Sandia could have a prototype new technology within a decade. To accelerate the process, Sandia wants to identify computer designs that could take advantage of new device technologies and demonstrate key components or steps in fabrication that would lower the risk for industry by demonstrating technological feasibility. “We’d be doing it with an eye toward helping industry give due attention to national security needs in computing,” Aidun said.
Read the Sandia news release.