Progress hits snag: tiny chips use outsize power

August 2, 2011 | Source: New York Times

The most advanced microprocessor chips have so many transistors that it is impractical to supply power to all of them at the same time, Microsoft Research scientists have found.

Some of the transistors are left unpowered (or “dark”) while the others are working. The phenomenon is known as dark silicon. As early as next year, these advanced chips will need 21 percent of their transistors to go dark at any one time.

In just three more chip generations (a half decade), the constraints will become even more severe. While there will be vastly more transistors on each chip, as many as half of them will have to be turned off to avoid overheating.

The problem has the potential to counteract Moore’s Law, the researchers suggest. If that rate of improvement lags, much of the innovation that people have come to take for granted will not happen, or will happen at a much slower pace.