Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


1.  On 10-12 June 2002, the Sub-Committee visited Silicon Valley, the concentration of computer-related business some 40 miles to the south of San Francisco, California which has helped give the US its leading role in microprocessing matters. The purpose of the visit was to enable members to discuss with a range of US experts not only the exploitation of CMOS technology to its limits but also possible post-CMOS technologies — all with a view to better equipping the Sub-Committee to consider further UK contributions to the global computing industry.

2.  The visiting party consisted of Lord Wade of Chorlton (Chairman of the Sub-Committee), Lord Methuen, Lord Mitchell, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Patel. The party was supported by the Sub-Committee's Specialist Adviser (Professor Steve Furber) and Clerk (Mr Roger Morgan), and by members of the British Consulate-General in San Francisco.

Stanford Seminar (MONDAY 10 JUNE, MORNING)

3.  The visit began with an academic seminar arranged with the assistance of and at Stanford University. (This was essentially a US counterpart of the seminar held at the Royal Society on 13 March[114].)

    a.  James Plummer, Dean of Engineering at Stanford University, welcomed the Sub-Committee and other participants to the University. In setting the scene for the seminar, he noted the technical challenges set out by the ITRS if CMOS technology was to be exploited to its theoretical minimum gate-length of 20 nm over the next ten to fifteen years. He saw the challenges as essentially manufacturing questions which were intrinsically soluble, although there remained a question about the costs involved in implementing the solutions. There would be potential for non-CMOS devices, but he felt the dominance of and investment in silicon technology meant that new devices would be successful only if they offered significant new markets. None would be a straightforward replacement for silicon which had defined and constrained our thinking about systems. In the meantime, enormous opportunities seemed to be presented by better design and utilisation of CMOS technology.

    b.  Dr Larry Dalton of the University of Washington described his work on organic electro-optic technology. This was entirely compatible with CMOS and enabled direct Internet and other communication access at enormous speeds of up to 100 GHz. The work had been funded by NSF grants and had led to great interest within the US and elsewhere. A framework for exploiting the IP was proving more complicated than anticipated. Work was still in progress on that.

    c.  Dr Meyya Meyyapan, Director of the NASA Ames Centre for Nanotechnology, outlined NASA's grand challenge of using revolutions in electronics and computing to create small (less than 10 Kg) autonomous or thinking spacecraft for exploration within the Solar System. Effectively, this required the development of teraflop computing within the dimensions and power consumption of present laptops. NASA was pursuing a number of nanotechnology initiatives which might help solve the formidable problems in meeting that challenge.

    d.  Dr Evelyn Hu of the University of California at Santa Barbara noted that the death of CMOS had been predicted for many years. It was, however, clear that the physical limits of CMOS technology were now in prospect. She agreed with Dean Plummer that the development of CMOS might ultimately be constrained by economics rather than manufacturing capability. Spintronics, molecular electronics, quantum computing and self-assembly all seemed to hold some prospect for leapfrogging over the CMOS limitations. Although success was far from guaranteed, their time might come and it was essential to maintain a portfolio of research balanced between exploiting CMOS to the maximum and potential new approaches. Work on the latter might, in any case, usefully feed back into the further development of CMOS — with which, in any case, it seemed likely that any new technologies would need to be integrated to at least some level.

    e.  Dr Erich Strohmaier of the Future Technologies Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory surveyed the field of supercomputing. Advances had been phenomenal: current laptop computers would have made the list of the top 500 supercomputers only eight years ago but annual performance in supercomputers had been growing by a factor of about 1.8 a year. Further progress was possible through technological and design improvements —and was needed to meet developing needs for large-scale modelling. One of the constraints on supercomputer development (and on computers more generally) was the interconnect problem. Super-fast processors could not be used to their maximum unless data transfer in and out was radically improved.

    f.  Dr Sung-Mo Kang, Dean of the Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California at Santa Cruz described the University's Centre for IT Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) established in partnership with Industry and Government to explore matters of mutual interest. Noting the potential for wide-ranging applications offered by further refinements in CMOS technology, he outlined the need to match further miniaturisation with appropriate low-power techniques.

    g.  Professor James Demmel of Berkeley University described the grand challenge accepted by CITRIS to develop low-power miniaturised sensors with built-in wireless networking ("smart dust") which could be used for a variety of purposes. The data gathered from these devices (and, to avoid data overload, filtered by the collecting networks) could be used for a variety of social policy purposes, for example, in relation to energy efficiency, environmental matters and health care. CITRIS was confident that the technical challenges could be met by using state of the art CMOS technology, and had already produced some prototypes. There remained some issues about the political framework within which such wide-spread monitoring would be acceptable and in relation to handling the IP arising from the project.

4.  In a brief concluding discussion, the following main points were noted.

    a.  There was a great deal of life left in CMOS technology to be exploited both through technical advances and better design and architecture.

    b.  Nevertheless, the physical and economical limits of CMOS were in prospect. Proportionate resources should be applied to blue-skies research on successor devices.

    c.  Generally, business had too short-term a view of research and development. Public funds would continue to be required to underpin the essential basic research.

    d.  Commercial impact came about not from technical advances themselves, but from the products they facilitated. Developments were often better driven by grand challenges than specific technical objectives. In this regard, biotechnology seemed a promising field.

Sandia National Laboratory (MONDAY 10 JUNE, AFTERNOON)

5.  Dr Mim John, Vice President of Sandia National Laboratory, and her colleagues outlined the work undertaken at the Sandia and other National Laboratories to develop extreme ultra-violet lithography (EUVL). The National Laboratories concerned were originally established for defence purposes and this was still their main activity. In recent years, however, they had diversified and the EUVL project was one of a number of non-defence activities.

6.  There had been awareness since the early 1990s that the present generation of lithography technology would, at some point, fail to provide the resolution required for the fabrication of chips with ever smaller components. EUV, in which the Laboratories had some expertise from earlier basic research was one of four possibilities contemplated by semiconductor interests, the others being X-rays, ion beams and electron beams. EUVL had become the front runner.

7.  EUV was easily absorbed. EUVL had therefore to be conducted in a near-vacuum and with appropriately-surfaced reflective mirrors in place of the transmissive mask and lenses of present machines. A novel business model had been developed with leading microprocessor companies (including Intel and IBM) to develop the technology. This ensured not only that the risks were spread but also that there would then be a sufficient market for the resulting technology. A prototype machine had been completed and had met all the specifications. EUVL offered such advances in lithography that it would be "good to the end of silicon".


8.  Dr David Tennenhouse, Intel's Vice President for the Corporate Technology Group and Director of Research, and his colleagues traced the development of computing from the early scarcity of machines to today's position where one person had to interact with many computers and computerised devices. They saw the future as truly ubiquitous and human-centred computing in which those many computer devices would be networked and interfaced so that they served rather than overwhelmed the user.

9.  The technical challenges of ubiquitous computing could, in Intel's view, be met entirely by further development of CMOS technology — although there remained a number of substantial challenges, not least in managing power consumption/heat dissipation. Design considerations would become even more important, and it was a matter for concern that universities' computer design research had declined in the US and elsewhere.

10.  The key obstacle at present was the non-technical matter of enabling users to treat computers as a trusted client. The need was not just to develop the technology, but the products which it facilitated. The key driver would be enabling the user's intuitive and natural interaction with personal and embedded computers, leading to truly personal computing.


11.  Dr Robert Morris and Dr Robin Williams[115], respectively Director and Associate Director of IBM's Almaden Research Centre, and their colleagues together with Dr David Cohn, Director of IBM's Austin Research Laboratory, surveyed IBM's wide-ranging research programme. They noted, as others had done, that the limits of CMOS technology might be dictated by economic rather than technical barriers and that, as CMOS reached its limits, there were substantial challenges to be overcome, particularly in power management. Nevertheless, CMOS would remain a formidable technology facilitating the development of many new and improved devices.

12.  IBM's research was addressing not only the further exploitation of CMOS and related technologies of memory and interconnect, but also non-CMOS technologies, including nanomagnetics and nanotechnology[116]. They had achieved 7-qubit quantum computing using specially designed molecules in which the quantum states were manipulated and measured using magnetic resonance techniques. Other technologies would be needed to achieve useful numbers of qubits. With associated advances in programming, quantum computing could quite simply rewrite the rules for computing, particularly in the field of encryption.

13.  Generally, IBM saw the possibility of market saturation for client computers, but scope for an explosion of embedded computing. CMOS and associated technologies had largely become commoditised. Value remained to be extracted from the areas of design, architecture, software and services.


14.  Richard Irving[117], Founder Partner of Pond Venture Partners Ltd; Michael Wishart, Managing Director of the Investment Banking Division of the High Technology Division of Goldman Sachs; and Nick McKeown, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford University (and co-founder of the successful internet-related Abrizio Inc) outlined the financial and legal structures within Silicon Valley that facilitated the lively technology transfer from academia and spin-out from other companies.

15.  Combined with general culture (in which failure was widely seen as a positive and useful experience), the village-like atmosphere meant that there was a good understanding in all quarters of others' needs and perspectives. This was reinforced by wider public dialogue about developments in technology. While many venture capital firms in the United Kingdom and elsewhere had excellent financial judgement, Silicon Valley firms were characterised by a good understanding of the technological issues as well. This enabled entrepreneurs to extract maximum value from the infrastructure that such firms provided.

16.  The computing industry was global, but had a substantial nexus in Silicon Valley. It was not self-promotion to make the point that UK and other non-US companies wishing to break into the global market would benefit from a presence in Silicon Valley. In return, Silicon Valley provided not only a range of expertise, but also CEOs and others with invaluable experience of developing high-tech products.


17.  At each event, the Sub-Committee thanked the hosts for their hospitality and others involved for the opportunities to explore the various issues. All those visited said that they too had found great value in the exchanges.

18.  On departure, the Sub-Committee warmly endorsed the Chairman's thanks to Roger Thomas, British Consul General for San Franciso and the surrounding area, and his staff — particularly Dr Sharima Rasanayagam and Dr Henry Mahncke (respectively Consul and Vice-Consul for Science and Technology) — for their help in setting up the visit and their excellent support throughout the programme.

114   See Appendix 5. Back

115   From whom the Sub-Committee had heard oral evidence at its hearing on 22 May 2002. Back

116   On the day of our visit, IBM's Zurich Laboratory announced the prototype Millipede, a nanotechnology device (using punched card principles) that offers storage densities about 25 times greater than current hard disks.  Back

117   Pond Venture Partners also submitted written evidence to the Inquiry, see page 202 of Volume II. Back

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