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The Semiconductor Industry Needs an X Prize

A few years ago, I had the honor of inviting Mike Melvill to San Jose to be the keynote speaker at the TSMC Technology Symposium, which at the time rivaled the Design Automation Conference as the largest gathering of semiconductor design and manufacturing engineers anywhere.

To those for whom the name doesn’t ring a bell, Mike Melvill was the pilot of SpaceShipOne, the first private manned craft to reach space.  In achieving this goal, the Scaled Composites team founded by Burt Rutan won the Ansari X-PRIZE and drew the attention (and financial backing) of Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, who continues to work with Scaled Composites to develop innovative private air and space craft.

A driven and brilliantly staffed organization, Scaled Composites likely would have achieved a space-altitude flight on its own. But the impetus of the Ansari X PRIZE focused the company to achieve several remarkable feats of engineering, combined with incredible acts of courage and bravery.

Since then the X PRIZE Foundation has gone on to create additional  X PRIZE competitions, most notably the Archon Genomics X PRIZE, the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, which seeks a viable automobile that can achieve 100mpg on environmentally friendly fuel sources.

When I brought Mike to the TSMC Tech Symposium, I knew there would be some in the audience who wouldn’t get it…who could not make the connection between a race to space and semiconductor engineering. And I was not disappointed. One of the first comments I got from an audience member on his way out was, “I don’t get it.”

Which was sad on multiple levels.

First of all, Melvill himself is an impressive human being. Graying and bespectacled but tanned and healthy, he looks like a retiree who spends his time on a golf course. But he’s not. He rides a bicycle 50 miles every other day and does aerobatics in a small plane just to experience g forces. Without a pressure suit, he can withstand gravitational forces that would make almost any other person on earth pass out. He has been the test pilot for numerous Burt Rutan creations. And he is a great guy, really fun to be around.

Second, his presentation was superb, including a video on the design, engineering and testing of multiple parts of SpaceShipOne. I daresay he probably never showed the same presentation to any other audience; he really wanted to impress this engineering group with the effort that went into the ship’s design.

Third, the idea of literally putting one’s self on the line for one’s engineering effort is as old as flight itself. And while there’s no corollary in the semiconductor engineering world, there is plenty of historical precedent for reaching beyond one’s comfort zone to achieve excellence in engineering. The Traitorous Eight were perhaps the greatest example of this in semiconductor engineering history.

Which is why it was initially hard for me to understand that semiconductor engineers couldn’t indentify with Mr. Melvill.

Perhaps they think the competition for a breakthrough in pure technology research was over when the complimentary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) process became the bulk technology of choice for semiconductor design. If so, they would be wrong.

Perhaps they think it ended when Intel took control of the processor market. But that hasn’t really ended anything either.

Maybe they believe the end of semiconductor scaling, as defined by Moore’s Law, will signal and end of competitiveness.  But I don’t believe that either.

To me, the problem is that engineers have a hard time imagining a finish line, a goal, the end of a challenge. Nothing is ever done because it is never perfect.

But if that were true, one could never win a race. Where’s the fun in that?

By focusing down on small parts of a bigger picture, most of the scientists, researchers, engineers and marketers in this industry have consciously elected to ignore the possibility that every day, they are beating challenges – not just competitive performance metrics.

Indeed, most engineers are surprised to realize that the end of CMOS process technology could be imminent. It’s as if they’ve been driving along watching the speedometer but ignoring the gas gauge, let alone the finish line.

So here we are. The industry is almost out of gas. The gauge is nearly empty.

The possibilities are of course endless.

Will lithography save the day? Will graphene come up to speed fast enough? Or will 3-D chips be the way of the future?

It’s my belief that the semiconductor industry needs an X PRIZE.

Yes, because it is a challenge. Yes, because it’s fun. Yes, because it could be personally and professionally rewarding to everyone involved. And yes, because even Intel doesn’t have a lock on the technology.

What should be the X PRIZE goal?

All the industry pundits I have read believe that CMOS technology is technically workable to 15 nanometers. That means as long as the transistors can be made cost-effectively, the device will operate as desired.  After that, quantum effects introduce state instability and therefore circuit unreliability.

But what if there is a way to master quantum effects? We’ve been pushing electrons around for 200 years, why not other subatomic particles?

Or should we go a different direction, perhaps using optical circuits? Should the contest involve a computational challenge? Or something more system-level, say, 3D holographics?

It would be great if teams were organizedto include research, academia, software and semiconductor design and manufacturing.

Does this distract from corporate profit-making? Of course. But corporations have been using engineering talent for profit for decades now, rewarding the effort with little more than stock options and meaningless promotions.

Yes, the semiconductor industry needs an X PRIZE.

What do you think it should be?

Reply here with your idea or proposal, and follow me on Twitter for updates.

Let’s do this, people!!

Photo: Scaled Composites

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3 comments on “The Semiconductor Industry Needs an X Prize

  1. bradpierce
    June 21, 2010

    Dan, people are still working on a lot of cool computing technologies, such as graphene and plasmonics (light on a wire), but, personally, I’ve lost interest in technology that isn’t trying to save the world. (Example.)

    According to Sean Murphy “Solve real problems that people will pay for where you add unique value.”

    – Brad

  2. siliconcowboy
    June 21, 2010

    Great comment Brad, and I enjoyed your link. You’re absolutely right, we should be focusing our technology resources and engineering minds on solving the energy challenge in a way that is environmentally smart. I personally know a semiconductor industry president who would give up his gig in a heartbeat to head the right alternative energy company.

  3. Ellis
    May 6, 2014

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2010 by in Tech Trends.
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