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Processors and the Limits of Physics 168

An anonymous reader writes: As our CPU cores have packed more and more transistors into increasingly tiny spaces, we've run into problems with power, heat, and diminishing returns. Chip manufacturers have been working around these problems, but at some point, we're going to run into hard physical limits that we can't sidestep. Igor Markov from the University of Michigan has published a paper in Nature (abstract) laying out the limits we'll soon have to face. "Markov focuses on two issues he sees as the largest limits: energy and communication. The power consumption issue comes from the fact that the amount of energy used by existing circuit technology does not shrink in a way that's proportional to their shrinking physical dimensions. The primary result of this issue has been that lots of effort has been put into making sure that parts of the chip get shut down when they're not in use. But at the rate this is happening, the majority of a chip will have to be kept inactive at any given time, creating what Markov terms 'dark silicon.' Power use is proportional to the chip's operating voltage, and transistors simply cannot operate below a 200 milli-Volt level. ... The energy use issue is related to communication, in that most of the physical volume of a chip, and most of its energy consumption, is spent getting different areas to communicate with each other or with the rest of the computer. Here, we really are pushing physical limits. Even if signals in the chip were moving at the speed of light, a chip running above 5GHz wouldn't be able to transmit information from one side of the chip to the other."
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Processors and the Limits of Physics

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