From IEEE Spectrum:
The defense department’s research wing is pouring $1.5 billion into projects that could radically alter how electronics are made
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is launching a huge expansion of its Electronics Resurgence Initiative, boosting the program to US $1.5 billion over five years. And while some of the research efforts will be just what you’ve come to expect from the agency that brought you disposable drones, self-driving cars, and cameras that can see around corners, a lot of this new money is going toward ideas that could fundamentally change how chips are designed.
If it all works out, the effect could be to make small groups of engineers capable of feats that would take 100 engineers to achieve today. “We envision a much more specialized, secure, and heavily automated electronics community, which will change how everything is done in electronics, top to bottom,” says DARPA’s ERI director Bill Chappell. And that means your job is probably going to feel the effects.
The agency will kick off the initiative and reveal some of the winning proposals at a summit in San Francisco from 23 to 25 July, headlined by bigwigs like Nvidia’s Bill Dally and Intel’s Mike Mayberry. Chappell spoke to IEEE Spectrum ahead of the conference about the initiative’s aims and potential impacts.
Bill Chappell on:
IEEE Spectrum: What are the problems with the U.S. electronics industry that prompted this massive effort?
- Why the electronics industry needs a push now
- Hardware that can figure out what it needs to be in the next millisecond
- Making two engineers feel like 100
- Design tools that learn from you
- How to make open-source hardware happen
- Making old fabs compete with new ones
- What it all means for the future of engineering
Bill Chappell: I think it’s a unique point in time. We’ve got underlying trends where the physics is already hard and getting harder. And that’s expressing itself in the cost across the board, whether that’s design, manufacturing, or even writing the software on top of a system-on-chip. Most aspects of electronics are getting more expensive, and larger design teams are needed to manage the underlying complexity. That has consequences across commercial industry and across the defense industry.
IEEE Spectrum: What is it about the problem that prevents industry from solving it on its own?
Chappell: Industry is very good at solving immediate problems. Where the government has stepped in in the past, and is trying to step in now, is at moments where there’s a larger leap ahead required. We’re aiming for 2025 to 2030 timelines. And oftentimes, industry isn’t looking out across those timelines as they have more immediate pressures and concerns.
They also don’t always do what’s best for the collective industry. One thing the government has done well in the past is build communities to tackle big problems as an aligned group, as opposed to just having individual entities tackle smaller problems.
IEEE Spectrum: Has this community building become more important as the original version of the semiconductor road map ended?
Chappell: That’s true. When it was quite clear what the road map was, everybody in the electronics industry could pull in the same direction and know that it would be best for the collective if they kept the road map going. That was true for DARPA as well. We were sponsors of the Sematech consortium, and when it was clear what the goals were, it was an easier time in terms of building the collective.
IEEE Spectrum: Why make this big push now, and why organize it as a high-level summit?...MUCH MORE
Chappell: Typically, we run individual projects. DARPA’s been doing projects in the electronics space since its inception. In this case, we felt that an initiative was important, first because we’re concentrating on the electronic sector more than ever, and second because it’s the connectivity of many different projects. The teaming that can happen between projects, we think, is where a lot of innovation can happen.
We kicked six programs off simultaneously last summer. So it was a good opportunity to pull the entire electronics community together, to be able to see what we’ve invested in, and then to help brainstorm what the next round of investments should look like.
IEEE Spectrum: What’s the best possible outcome from the summit?
Chappell: There are two aspects that we’re hoping for. First, that we realize the synergy between the individual projects, so that new teams form from universities, companies, and federal labs that might otherwise not partner. And second, that we get a basis for new and exciting ideas for a next round of funding that we hope to announce in the fall.
IEEE Spectrum: One of the three major efforts DARPA is backing centers around chip architecture. Why is that, and what do you hope it will accomplish?
Chappell: In architectures, we believe that aggressive specialization is a part of the answer to what happens next. That’s mapping applications to the specific architectural choices. And you already see that in machine learning, where there’s a really hot field in terms of deep neural nets and other implementations. [See “IBM’s Do-It-All Deep Learning Chip” for an example of this.]
But a lot of our applications are much broader than that. We’re looking to collect the different applications where it makes sense to commit specific specialized resources.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you give an example?
Chappell: We started a year ago in a program called Hive, where we took a look at sparse graph parsing; that’s making associations across data sets which aren’t densely connected. An example application would just be logistics, where you’ve got lots of connections that didn’t map to the way computing architectures were laid out. In that program, Intel and Qualcomm are doing base-level designs; doing things like updating memory access patterns, updating the type of cores that would be doing the processing, and working across the software stack to do a hardware/software codesign for a variety of applications.
That was step one. Step two, to be kicked off at the summit, is something we call “software-defined hardware.” That’s where the hardware is smart enough to reconfigure itself to be the type of hardware you want, based on an analysis of the data type that you’re working on.
In that case, the very hard thing is to figure out how to do that data introspection, how to reconfigure the chip on a microsecond or millisecond timescale to be what you need it to be. And more importantly, it has to monitor whether you’re right or not, so that you can iterate and be constantly evolving toward the ideal solution.
IEEE Spectrum: Is any of that possible now?