Brave New Chip For a Brave New Wireless Future

A researcher at Rice University has come up with a semiconductor that is faster than conventional silicon chips, uses 30 times less energy and can be built using the existing manufacturing facilities. The new process to create the chip is called PCMOS, and was presented yesterday at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference. PCMOS, which stands for probabilistic complementary metal oxide semiconductor, is a breakthrough that could boost performance of graphics on mobile phones, encryption and chips used inside medical implants without sucking as much power. Reminiscent of the Infinite Improbability Drive in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a PCMOS chip has a tolerance for randomness that researchers have termed “probabilistic logic,” which it uses to solve problems rather than the Boolean logic used in digital circuits. Instead of making calculations that are accurate pretty much all of the time, a designer can program this chip to be right 8 times out of 10 — or even less. Lowering the threshold of accuracy generates the power savings and speed.

The approach works best in chips for applications such as graphics, encryption and devices such as cell phones, which perform more functions while needing longer battery lives. Using this chip technology, handset designers could customize how the phone renders graphics in way that consumers won’t notice a difference but results in considerable power savings. For more details on how all this works, check out Professor Krishna Palem’s paper on the topic. Palem hopes the technology could be used for embedded chips within the next four years and expects a company to commercialize the technology in 2010 or 2011.

Rice isn’t the only institution pushing promising silicon research. Earlier this year, Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology announced a 60 GHz chip, which could be used for wireless HD video transfer, that requires less than 200 miliwatts (mW) to operate — making the chip energy efficient enough for use in a cell phone. Other competitors in this space include Vubiq and SiBeam, which makes a 60 GHz chips aimed at televisions and AV equipment. Phiar, another company attempting to build a 60 GHz chip, shut down last year.