Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


1.  To enable the Sub-Committee to get a good understanding of the scientific and technical issues underpinning its Inquiry, a seminar was arranged at the Royal Society, London on 13 March 2002.

2.  Members of the Sub-Committee present were Lord Wade of Chorlton (Chairman of the Sub-Committee), Lord Flowers, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, Lord Lewis of Newnham, Lord Methuen, Lord Patel and Baroness Wilcox. They were supported by the Sub-Committee's Specialist Adviser (Professor Steve Furber) and Clerk (Mr Roger Morgan), and by the Select Committee's Specialist Assistant (Dr Adam Heathfield). Dr Sarah Pearce of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology was also present.


3.  The day began with a series of presentations, summarised below.


4.  Professor John Enderby, Physical Secretary of the Royal Society, outlined the areas where fundamental physics could soon begin to act as a brake on the pace of hardware improvement. According to the ITRS, limits of the materials used in CMOS microprocessors would start to be reached in 2008 — currently a red brick wall in the Roadmap.

5.  Quoting the evidence given by the US National Science Foundation to the House Research Committee Hearing on "Beyond Silicon" in 2000, Professor Enderby introduced the relevant areas of research that would be involved in finding ways around the physical constraints — computer science, physics, mathematics, biology and engineering. A new science was emerging from the interface of these normally separate areas.

The demand for computing power

6.  Professor Tony Hey, Director of EPSRC's e-Science Programme, spoke about the demand for computing power, with particular reference to the prospect of handling a data deluge from large-scale scientific work such as particle physics at CERN, genome sequencing, and Earth observation. Different types of computing would be called for:

    a.  Capability Computing — for large-scale problems requiring supercomputers consisting of many individual processors operating in parallel; and

    b.  Capacity Computing — for large numbers of separate problems, each of which could be addressed by an individual processor.

7.  Companies such as British Aerospace were interested in capability computing to run models of complex fluid dynamic systems. Other areas of science — from protein structure investigation to weather and climate modelling — would require similar facilities. The supercomputers able to address such problems, such as IBM's BlueGene project, would always have a market, but never one of large numbers. There would not be significant commercial opportunities for the United Kingdom in this sector.

8.  Large particle physics experiments needed greater capacity computing; indeed it was expected that forthcoming projects at CERN would create such an increase in the rate of data production that the capacity to analyse it would need to outstrip Moore's Law growth. Professor Hey discussed the proposal to address this capacity limitation — the Grid. This would allow researchers to interconnect scattered computing resources and apply them to various analyses of data, essentially internet-scale distributed computing.

9.  The major challenge to make the Grid a viable proposition was the development of middleware — agreed methods and procedures to enhance interoperability and efficient use of processors. This was the central aim of the e-Science programme. Professor Hey believed that significant commercial opportunities would arise in creating this middleware. The United Kingdom should also look to the huge market for personal mobile devices for other opportunities to play on its strengths.

The role of architecture

10.  David May, Professor of Computer Science at Bristol University, discussed the role of architecture in improving computer performance. Increasing processor speed and using more transistors did not always provide a corresponding increase in operating speed. Insufficient attention to architecture design meant that general purpose performance had lagged behind the potential suggested by Moore's Law. The ITRS was, in fact, explicitly based on maintaining the industry's progress in line with Moore's Law, enabling either function and performance to be increased at constant cost or (of greater commercial importance) to provide the same performance at reduced cost.

11.  Economics already required very high volumes of chip fabrication, and the current business model was becoming increasing difficult to maintain as design and mask-making costs escalated. Rather than making a range of different chips for different applications, with each type being produced in relatively small numbers, it might become necessary to have generic chips made in larger quantities, using software to tailor them to particular applications.

12.  Improvements in architecture alone could have significant impact in improving performance for the end user and should be pursued energetically. The principal area where advances were needed was in parallel computing, where many processors were applied concurrently to a single task.

13.  Other complications arose from the difficulties in verifying that increasingly complex processors worked correctly. Without advances in formal verification techniques, it was likely that an ever-greater number of devices would be faulty and unreliable. There were also limitations in wire technology: while transistors were getting faster, the interconnecting wires were not, thus restricting the speed at which information could be moved.

14.  The United Kingdom had strengths in many areas relevant to the inquiry: high complexity microelectronic design; simple, efficient architectures; programming languages and tools; theory and practice of concurrency; and formal verification. The Government should support activities in these various areas. Particular attention should be paid to creating the clusters of large research teams with industry links that computer architecture research required, and to setting up more degree programmes which spanned architecture, software and verification. More and more people with these cross-cutting skills would be needed.

Materials options

15.  Bruce Joyce, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College, described the possibilities for pursuing hardware developments in entirely new ways. He outlined some of the research that was under way in single electron transistors, spin resonance transistors, and quantum dots. Some of these were still at a very early stage of development, and none had got beyond proof of principle demonstration experiments. There was a considerable gap between the current state of knowledge in these technologies and any practical applications.

16.  However, continuing research was needed in these and more general areas of materials science; serendipity would probably have a large part to play in creating a worthwhile successor to CMOS technology. An initiative to support fairly fundamental research whilst maintaining a focus on the overall objective of new processor technologies would be useful. The Science and Engineering Research Council's 1985 Low Dimensional Structures and Devices Initiative[113] provided a good model for such an exercise.


17.  Dr Kamal Hossain, Director of Science and Technology at NPL, noted that CMOS chip fabrication required very accurate measurements of position and surface conditions. For example, oxide layers on silicon wafers had to be 1.5 nm (or about 8 atoms) thick, with tolerances of only an atom or so. Significant advances in metrology techniques at the atomic scale were essential for solving many of the problems identified in the industry's Roadmap.

18.  Metrology helped the semiconductor industry to improve process control and production efficiency; to reduce time to market; to reduce manufacturing costs; and to improve product reliability. Metrology was also an essential tool for innovation and development. The US and Japan had national programmes in general nanotechnology, and the fundamental role of metrology was emphasised in both.

19.  At present, NPL were working with a variety of techniques including atomic force microscopy, scanning tunnelling microscopy and surface spectroscopy to measure dimensional characteristics, physical properties and chemical composition on a close to atomic scale. The objective was to develop reliable new techniques that could be transferred from one laboratory to another and thus form the basis of future measurement standards. Such developments would provide the necessary metrology tools for effective manufacture of new generations of microprocessors. Dr Hossain saw the United Kingdom as well placed to lead in the development of the metrological infrastructure required to allow the momentum of Moore's Law to be maintained.

Nano-scale computing

20.  John Pethica, Professor of Materials Science at Oxford University, discussed the limits of existing technology for microprocessing speed and issues arising from nano-scale computing and quantum information processing. There was burgeoning world-wide interest in nanotechnology, in particular regarding novel physical properties and functionalities of ultra-small structures and their potential synergies with biomolecules. Many areas of nanotechnology had potential applications in future microprocessors.

21.  Professor Pethica identified some factors other than physical limits that would limit the speed of future processors. The first was cost — the semiconductor industry was accustomed to the exponential decrease in the cost per operation or unit of memory. However, the cost of new manufacturing plant to make processors with smaller components was rising very rapidly, and technology away from the leading edge might become more valuable. Application limits would also apply — the appropriate approach to microprocessor design would ultimately depend on the applications.

22.  In any case, silicon would remain the basis of microprocessing for the next 10-15 years. The industry investment in silicon technology was immense and would not be abandoned overnight. New technologies for microprocessors were likely to be like silicon but better or provide greatly changed costing or use radically different operating principles, such as quantum information processing. The range of options when considered in the long term was vast. The field could be narrowed since it was improbable that technologies that needed to operate at very low temperatures, were very bulky or were unlikely to integrate well with silicon would take off.

23.  The United Kingdom had strengths in photonics, Silicon/Germanium and quantum computing. While the last was potentially the most interesting, it was important to note that the many papers published on the subject illustrated only the relevant principles; practical applications were a very long way off.

24.  Professor Pethica closed by contrasting the structures fostering the development of innovative high-technology companies in the United Kingdom and in the US. He saw an urgent need for the UK Government to develop an integrated strategy to encourage new businesses in the microprocessing sector.


25.  In a wide-ranging discussion involving all the presenters together with

  • Sir Robin Saxby and Mike Muller, respectively Chairman and Chief Technology Office of ARM;
  • Dr John Taylor, Director General of Research Councils;
  • Gavin Costigan, EPSRC and PPARC liaison officer at the Office of Science and Technology; and
  • Dr Tim Scragg of the Communication and Information Industries Directorate, DTI,

the following main points were noted.

    a.  CMOS technology had a long life left in it. It had received enormous cumulative investment world-wide, and would remain the basis for producing microprocessors for many decades — even if future rates of progress became less than predicted by Moore's Law. Any new technology seemed bound to supplement CMOS rather than replace it.

    b.  The development of modern computing had been based on the abstraction of software and applications from the hardware on which they ran. The bulk of improvements in computer performance to date had come from hardware developments. Future improvements might rely to a greater extent on better architectures and more adept software. For users of the technology, the rate of progress in performance might equal or exceed that delivered to date by better microprocessors.

    c.  General market demands were for cheaper, smaller and faster devices — normally in that priority order. Reducing the cost of microprocessors whilst at least maintaining levels of performance would allow more widespread use of microprocessors, perhaps even in disposable applications — again increasing benefits that users could derive. CMOS technology was likely to offer the only route to cheaper devices.

    d.  The ITRS identified many currently unsolved technical barriers to continuing the Moore's Law trend in CMOS technology over next ten years or so, not least in metrology. Provided IP were safeguarded, there could be substantial financial returns for those who found the best solutions to these problems. However, as the United Kingdom was no longer involved in silicon chip manufacture, the manufacturing implementation would be in the US and Japan, or the increasingly dominant Taiwan, Korea and China.

    e.  Even so, the limits of CMOS miniaturisation were in prospect beyond about 2010. Below a certain size, the performance of individual components would turn on atomic level variations in composition rather than the aggregate properties on which CMOS technology relied. In any event, continued miniaturisation would also, at some point, expose CMOS microprocessing to unacceptable quantum uncertainties and random thermal effects.

    f.  Substantially different concepts would be needed to take miniaturisation beyond those limits. Some devices had already been demonstrated but were a very long way from practical application. Others were still at a mainly theoretical level. The United Kingdom had expertise in many relevant areas. Again, there could be substantial financial returns for those who made practicable advances, although it would be unrealistic to think that the United Kingdom could use any innovation in these fields to break back into capital-intensive manufacturing capacity. (It would, however, be important to maintain some UK or European hardware capability to underpin necessary research and development.)

    g.  Blue skies expertise was spread across academic disciplines, without any apparent co-ordination as regards possible future microprocessing technologies. Interdisciplinary collaboration seemed not to be a natural state, and there was much to be learnt from previous Research Council activities that had brought different disciplines together. The Low Dimensional Structures and Devices Initiative and the Interdisciplinary Centres had been particularly effective, and could provide working models for a future programme in microprocessing.

    h.  Work at the interface between computer science, physics, biology, mathematics and engineering seemed likely to hold good prospects for developing valuable technologies. In this and other cases, however, the time (and finance) needed for development between any initial innovation and the market should not be underestimated.

    i.  Many of the largest commercial opportunities for the United Kingdom seemed likely to arise in software, architecture, chip design and metrology in which the country already had significant but perhaps under-recognised skills. Such opportunities would arise irrespective of the precise nature of the underpinning hardware.

    j.  Some of the opportunities that would arise could be taken up and exploited by single UK businesses. In that connection, the United Kingdom was slightly behind the US in producing commercial spin-offs from academic research. This arose from a combination of differences between general cultures, the taxation system (especially as applied to venture capital), and the attitude and experience of academics.

    k.  Other opportunities, and any requiring large-scale technological change, could be exploited only with substantial international collaboration. Given the American and Far East domination of microprocessor manufacturing, securing the necessary critical mass for UK or other European initiatives could be problematical. The EU could have a crucial role to play in promoting UK and European ideas.

26.  Members endorsed the Chairman's thanks to all the participants for their help in clarifying the issues for the Inquiry in this complicated field, and to Professor Enderby and the Specialist Adviser for their work in setting up the event. The participants said that they too had found great value in the sharing of knowledge throughout the day.

113   Summarised in the SERC's 1992 Review of the Initiative, ISBN 1 870669 73 8. Back

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