Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


The development of computing

2.1  If asked about computers, most people will call to mind the ubiquitous personal computer (PC) found not only in almost every workplace but also in many homes. These are astonishingly powerful multi-purpose machines. With the right applications or software, people can manipulate text, pictures and sound; undertake complex calculations; play games; and communicate around the planet.

2.2  Less obvious but even more pervasive is embedded computing — the dedicated computing that underpins many items of scientific, medical or engineering equipment and a whole variety of consumer products, such as: mobile phones, games consoles and other gadgets; domestic appliances; and engine management and other safety systems in cars. At the other end of the scale, there are high-powered supercomputers supporting a wide range of science and engineering applications and servers that handle internet traffic, hold large commercial databases, and so on.

2.3  The computing resource that we now take for granted would have seemed science fiction even a generation ago. We are living through a digital revolution which has two inter-related components. Firstly, we have found ways of representing many aspects of the world in numbers (see Box 1). Secondly, we have developed machines and techniques to manipulate those numbers and present the outcomes in ways that improve our knowledge and understanding, our communications and our pleasure.

2.4  Computing performance has improved dramatically since the world's first programmable computer ran in Manchester in 1948. Thanks to continuing technological advances, performance has about doubled every two years since then[7]. The pace of change is illustrated by the fact that the performance of a modern PC outstrips some of the most powerful supercomputers from only ten years ago.

2.5  This improvement has been achieved principally through ever more sophisticated manufacturing techniques of the silicon chips that are at the heart of all present-day computing applications. These have allowed the individual components of those chips to be made smaller and smaller and, per unit of computational power, cheaper and cheaper. These ever smaller devices can work either much more quickly or, as may be crucial for some applications, with much lower power consumption. Moreover, the greater concentration of individual components allows different ways of linking them together to do computing more efficiently.

Reasons for the Inquiry

2.6  The standard technology for manufacturing present day computer chips is known as CMOS, described further in Chapter 4. The miniaturisation of individual components on computer chips has a physical limit. Below a certain size, the well-understood bulk properties of CMOS are overtaken by the different characteristics of individual atoms.

2.7  During a meeting between the Select Committee and representatives of the Royal Society in October 2001, Professor John Enderby[8] noted that, at present rates of miniaturisation, the physical limits of CMOS technology would be met in about 10 to 15 years. If the progress to which the world had become accustomed were to continue, new devices or approaches would be required. He argued that, while there was much useful work going on within the United Kingdom about such new devices and approaches, this had insufficient co-ordination to give it critical mass or to exploit opportunities within the global marketplace.

2.8  Given the already overwhelming yet increasing importance of computing in almost every facet of our lives, the Committee decided that these matters merited fuller consideration through this Inquiry.

The Sub-Committee

2.9  The Inquiry has been conducted by Sub-Committee II, which prepared this Report. The Sub-Committee membership and declarations of interest are set out in Appendix 1. Our Specialist Adviser was Professor Steve Furber FRS FREng, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Manchester. We are grateful for his assistance in considering the many technical questions that arose during the Inquiry.

Call for evidence

2.10  Against the background indicated above, the Inquiry was formally launched in February 2002 with the issue of the call for evidence reproduced in Appendix 2. Reflecting the Sub-Committee's understanding of the subject at the time, this concentrated on materials technology. As discussed later in this Report, we have come to the view that the centre of gravity — at least for the United Kingdom — lies more in design and application.

Evidence received

2.11  We received written evidence from a wide range of sources, listed in Appendix 3. The written evidence was complemented by oral evidence received at ten public hearings between April and July 2002. The oral and written evidence is published in Volume II of this Report. We are grateful to all those concerned for their help in clarifying and exploring the technical and wider questions.

2.12  In addition, we explored our subject through a number of other activities.

(a)  To help us prepare for reviewing the highly technical evidence that was to be received, we visited NPL in March 2002 to familiarise ourselves with the microscopically small matters with which we would be dealing. A note of that visit is in Appendix 4.

(b)  Also in March 2002, we commissioned a seminar enabling us to discuss matters with leading experts from a wide range of disciplines. A note of that seminar, which was kindly hosted by the Royal Society, is in Appendix 5.

(c)  The United States of America (US) has an undisputed leading role in the global computing industry. Having begun to understand the UK scene, we felt the need to test our emerging views with the major US computing interests. For this purpose, we visited Silicon Valley in the Bay Area around San Francisco in June 2002. A note of that visit (which included a seminar, kindly hosted by Stanford University, analogous to the Royal Society event mentioned immediately above) is in Appendix 6.

(d)  A number of those giving evidence to us argued that there would be advantage in the United Kingdom's having some centre for research into computing. The exemplar most often cited was IMEC at Leuven in Belgium. We visited that Centre in July 2002 to discuss with the leading figures there the factors that had been critical to its undoubted success. A note of that visit is in Appendix 7.

We are most grateful to all those who hosted our various visits and contributed to the two seminars for the generous contribution of their time and knowledge to our deliberations.

This Report

2.13  Chapter 1 of this Report summarises the document as a whole and gives an overview of our findings. These flow from our consideration — through the Inquiry outlined in this Chapter — of a wide variety of inter-related technical and business matters. The rest of this Report is structured to provide a coherent route through those matters, as outlined in paragraphs 1.6 to 1.22.


2.14  The abbreviations and technical terms used in this Report are generally explained only the first time they are used. For convenience, they are all listed in Appendix 8 together with a glossary of the main technical terms.

This is literally exponential growth. Doubling every two years means quadrupling over four years, increasing eight-fold over six years and so on. Over 20 years, the growth factor would be over a thousand. Back

8   Physical Secretary of the Royal Society. Back

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