Former Intel CEO and ASU president talk microchip future and lack of student interest

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Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett, left, and ASU President Michael Crow spoke at the Phoenix Art Museum about technological advancements. The event was hosted by Zocalo Public Square and ASU. (Marianna Hauglie/DD)

ASU President Michael Crow and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett gave a presentation at the Phoenix Art Museum Thursday discussing the advancements and future of technology.

The talk was hosted by Zocalo Public Square and ASU. Featured speaker Craig Barrett, along with his wife Barbara, endowed $10 million to ASU in 2000 and lent their name to Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

For decades, Intel has used “Moore’s law” when projecting the future of microchip technology. The law was conceived in 1965 when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, more commonly known as a computer chip, doubled every eighteen months to two years.

However, Moore’s law is not indefinite. In 1965, Moore said the rate of advancement will start slowing within the next decade. This claim proved to be false, and has yet to be proven otherwise as computer chips become increasingly smaller.

Barrett said he believes that once chips have reached a point where they can no longer be made smaller, designers will layer integrated circuits on top of each other, providing additional surface area.

Barrett said he wasn’t entirely sure what would replace transistors as the building blocks of integrated circuits.

“That is sort of the $64 trillion question,” Barrett said. “You need an electronic switch that is more economical and has more head room than the transistor. And right now there is nothing, in my opinion, that has that head room.”

Barrett said people have been looking at spintronics, photonics and carbon nanotubes, but noted that those have yet to replace the modern transistor due to costs.

“If you count up the number of letters or numbers in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, and then you divide by the purchase price of the New York Times, each one of those letters is way more expensive than a transistor,” Barrett said.

Barrett and Crow also addressed some of the issues with the U.S. education system, specifically the lack of students interested in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They cited a lack of science and mathematics programs in the K-12 system as one of the main problems, leading to fewer college students majoring in STEM fields.

Barrett criticized politicians for failing to properly fund organizations such as the National Science Foundation.

“Washington doesn’t like to spend money on research because it doesn’t get you a bridge with your name on it,” Barrett said.

After the talk, Crow said that the number of ASU STEM majors has doubled since 2003 and continues to grow thanks to things like the STEM Doctoral Enhancement Program. During the discussion with Barrett, Crow pointed out that out of all the college graduates Intel hires, the most are from ASU.

Scott Gunn, a computer programmer at Rural/Metro Corporation, said that while he enjoyed the talk overall, he expected a more extensive discussion on the future of microchips.

“They talked about nanotubes and graphene a tiny, tiny bit,” Gunn said. “Definitely interesting, (but) not exactly what I expected.”

Contact the reporter at perry.vandell@asu.edu