IBM marches toward 'post-silicon' future

IBM announced Wednesday a two-part plan to invest $3 billion over five years in research geared at scaling down the size of silicon chips and finding new technologies to act as alternatives to silicon chips. 

Albert Gea/Reuters
IBM chairwoman and chief executive Virginia "Ginni" Rometty delivers a keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Feb. 26, 2014.

International Business Machines Corporation said Wednesday that it will invest $3 billion over the next five years on developing new computer chip technology. 

With this announcement, IBM is addressing two main goals: 1) In a program called "7 nanometer and beyond," IBM aims to scale down silicon chips to make them operate more efficiently and 2) to create new technologies that can act as alternatives to traditional silicon chips. IBM says these alternatives are necessary because of limitations posed by silicon-based chips. New computing platforms based on materials such as carbon nanotubes could allow for faster computing and use less energy. 

Carbon nanotubes transistors, for example, are "less than half the size of the leading silicon technology" and can "be used to replace the transistors in chips that power data-crunching servers, high performing computers and ultra fast smart phones," according to an IBM release

IBM views this research as a means of pushing to a future of computing that moves to a "post-silicon" era. 

"In the next ten years computing hardware systems will be fundamentally different as our scientists and engineers push the limits of semiconductor innovations to explore the post-silicon future," says Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems and Technology Group, in a release. "IBM Research and Development teams are creating breakthrough innovations that will fuel the next era of computing systems."

This announcement comes at a time when IBM's hardware sales are down. In the first fiscal quarter of 2014, IBM's hardware sales totaled $2.4 billion, a 23 percent decrease from the previous year. Overall, the company took in less quarterly revenue than any other time in the last five years. 

Last year, IBM spent more than $6 billion on research and development, which means this announcement is more or less in line with its recent trends of research investment, notes The Wall Street Journal

With IBM sensing the end of silicon computing, it is hedging its bets by expanding its scope to focus on complementary metal-oxide semiconductor technology, otherwise known as CMOS. 

"These are essential ingredients in delivering the kind of performance the world will demand. The world is demanding it now and will continue to demand it for the next 10 years," Mr. Rosamilia told Reuters

Still, this move does not mean IBM is abandoning silicon entirely. Rather, it is preparing for a future that shifts away from Moore's Law, the theory named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that states that transistors on a chip will double in number every two years. 

"IBM is not giving up on silicon, but it is saying it’s time to place an array of bets, and to move beyond silicon," Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering, a technology research firm, told The New York Times. 

"You might say this is not a good time to be in the silicon chip business, but it is a great time to be ready for the next thing. This is the next thing," Mr. Doherty told Reuters

IBM will also continue to fund its research through university partnerships in its efforts to push to the future of the semiconductor industry. 

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