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Worried about China, the US pushes for homegrown chip development

Agam Shah | Nov. 2, 2016
The White House has established the Semiconductor Working Group to encourage semiconductor development

The world's fastest computer runs a Chinese chip, and that fact hasn't escaped notice by the U.S. government.

So how does the U.S. government bludgeon the Chinese chip threat? A new U.S. government working group aims to encourage domestic companies to use homegrown chip technology and resist the urge to buy inexpensive Chinese semiconductors.

The White House this week established the Semiconductor Working Group, a private-public advisory group that will create policy and research guidelines for semiconductor development. The ultimate goal is to retain U.S. leadership in semiconductor technology.

Nations are waging a battle to build the world's fastest computers, and homegrown chips are at the center of that race. Supercomputers help with economic projections, weapons development, scientific simulations, and scenarios critical to national security.

Advanced semiconductors will also drive the development of self-driving cars, robots, drones, and satellites. Semiconductors are building blocks for most electronics.

"A loss of leadership in semiconductor innovation and manufacturing could have significant adverse impacts on the U.S. economy and even on national security," said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The working group is also encouraging the development of new types of computers. Companies are already developing quantum computers and chips mimicking brain functionality, which could eventually replace today's PCs and chips.

Without mentioning China, Holdren said some countries subsidize chip development and dump inferior technology on U.S. companies. That hurts the development of new semiconductor technology, he said.

"Such policies could lead to overcapacity and dumping, reduce incentives for private-sector research and development in the United States, and thereby slow the pace of semiconductor innovation and realization of the economic and security benefits that such innovation could bring," Holdren said.

The call for national cooperation in semiconductor development is timely. Researchers believe that Moore's Law, a guiding light for the semiconductor development cycle codified by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, is coming to an end, creating an opportunity to rethink chip design.

But technological challenges are holding back chip advances. It's becoming difficult to cram more features on smaller chips, and adoption of new materials and manufacturing technologies are progressing at a slow pace.

Major chip companies IBM and Intel have their own ideas of what future PCs and servers will look like. One goal is to bring uniformity into semiconductor development so that large and small U.S. companies can benefit alike.

The U.S. government may have its own interests in mind. U.S. companies sell chip technology to China, but the government has blocked some sales in the name of national security. Last year, the U.S. government blocked Intel from selling its Xeon chips for China’s supercomputers, reflecting concerns they could be used in supercomputers related to "nuclear explosive activities."

 

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