Robert Wolkow: Changing computing one atom at a time


Call it peak computing. In the vein of peak oil, it seems the traditional semiconductor is about to encounter a similar experience. In short, it’s reaching a point of saturation whereby, in less than a decade, there won’t be a way to make the increasingly smaller and faster technology we’ve become accustomed to having at our fingertips.

As physicist Robert Wolkow describes it, “the physical limits of the materials are emerging and there’s no foreseeable way to achieve smaller, faster, cheaper technological advances.”

He said there are foreseeable ways to make smaller, faster, more expensive, and there will be customers for that, but it will be companies such as Google and not a mass consumer audience that can afford such luxuries.

“That will lead to a kind of saturation or commodification of the industry,” Wolkow said. “Intel won’t be able to maintain its lead, at least in consumer electronics. Everyone is seeking a way to get off the roadmap and on to some new map. This has been going on for quite a while with greater and greater urgency.”

Some people say quantum computing is the answer, but Wolkow doesn’t think so — and he has an alternative.

“Quantum computing is kind of a fad and a fascinating academic exercise, but it’s highly speculative,” Wolkow said. “Whereas what we’re doing is a certainty. We’ve come up with a way to go beyond transistor technology. We have a company called Quantum Silicon Inc. and we’re making a new basis for ultra-efficient electronics. It’s kind of the ultimate green technology in that it uses extremely little material and extremely little energy.”

Industry focus is actually on being less heat-generating, Wolkow said, but being green is a nice side benefit. “It turns out that if you run today’s microprocessors faster, they get too hot, burn up and fail. Our technology would generate so little heat, you could once again get on a new path to faster, cheaper, smaller. We’re projecting something like a thousand times less energy consumption than today’s technology.”

How do they do it? By manipulating single silicon atoms.

“There’s a whole new way to deploy silicon,” Wolkow said.

The idea is to make hybrid technology. His lab proposes to use today’s technology where it makes sense because it is powerful and advanced. Super-chargers or co-processors would relieve the traditional technology of tasks that were particularly energy-consuming or slow and have those tasks done by this new super-facility and then it would hand back to silicon the kind of mundane tasks it does so well.

“We’re actually building a hybrid conventional and atom scale that mingle and work together,” he said. “We’re still testing it. We’ve built a prototype that shows we can handle electrons on the atomic scale and we can move a charge from one atom to another and thereby do the most rudimentary info exchange, but what we’ve done is very preliminary. We’ve worked on just proving fundamental capabilities and we’ve captured the key IP so we have a few patents emerging, some of which are issued and some are in the pipeline.”

He said they’ve made the first single-molecule transistor and then found ways to make silicon atoms behave as the building blocks. “It’s an interesting starting-off point, in that we can show that it’s no longer impossible to see and touch and manipulate atoms, but you can even make tools out of atoms to help you make other tools. There are endless possibilities for this.”

This project has, in many ways, been Wolkow’s life’s work. He began studying the idea when he was working as a postdoctoral researcher at IBM in New York in 1987.

“There I was the first person to see a chemical reaction on an atom scale,” he said.

To get to where he is today, he said Compute Canada’s resources have been essential. “They’ve given us tremendous resources that would be prohibitively expensive if we were to have to purchase those computers,” he said. “I looked into it — and I’m very well funded — but there was no way. So I’m very grateful to Compute Canada and what they’ve given us over the years.”

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