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Mighty Morphing Power Processors

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Hardware

Even by the standards of the Lone Star State, the claim by two Texas researchers -- Douglas C. Burger and Stephen W. Keckler -- can seem a trifle grandiose. "We're reinventing the computer," asserts Keckler.

A glance at their backers, though, dispels some of the skepticism. IBM is working closely with the two University of Texas computer scientists. And the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2001 handed them $11 million in development funds. Now, IBM is gearing up to manufacture the first prototype of their concept for a radically new computer-brain chip. If it delivers what Burger and Keckler promise, high-tech gurus are betting it will spawn a new family of superchips from Big Blue -- chips capable of crunching a trillion calculations every second.

Such blistering speed would itself be amazing; it's roughly the oomph of a $50 million supercomputer in 1997. But more impressive, the chip can rewire itself on the fly -- a feat known as reconfigurable computing. With this technology, a future Macintosh from Apple Computer Inc might rejigger the circuitry on its PowerPC chip and then run software written for Intel Corp.'s microprocessors. Or an iPod music player could turn into a handheld computer -- or detect an incoming call and convert itself into a cell phone.

Laying a new foundation for processors is crucial because the usual way of boosting performance, by adding more transistors, is running out of steam. Or rather, it's running into steam -- in the form of too much heat. The chips coming by 2008 will have circuit lines so skinny that an advanced microprocessor could sport roughly 20 miles of tiny wires. The juice needed to push signals through circuitry that long could generate enough heat to melt the wires.

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