Cosmic rays becoming an increasing problem for microchips. Threat to Moore’s Law?

When I first saw the title of this article, I thought it might be an alarmist piece of some kind about passenger safety from higher radiation doses while in the air, but it’s actually about a broader and more serious problem: The $8.5M Race to Protect Planes From Cosmic Rays.

It’s an invisible, but looming threat from outer space: distant cosmic events that can cause a computer, or even an aircraft, to crash here on Earth. Concerns have reached the point where a major European effort has been launched to investigate the devastation that can result from cosmic rays, wiping a device’s memory or damaging safety-critical aircraft electronics.

Some fear that Moore’s Law will soon break down — not because of a limit in our ability to make ever-smaller transistors at the scale of tens of nanometers (billionths of a meter) or less, but because of the neutron threat. As transistors shrink, errors can be caused by much smaller bursts of charge arising from neutrons. With higher densities, higher speeds and lower power consumption, microchip manufacturers are seeing neutron-induced soft errors occur more frequently.

Reading this story, I was reminded about the efforts underway to build a quantum computer, and how much energy is having to go into insuring that the components are isolated from the environment.  With varying degrees, it looks like this isolation problem will become increasingly an issue with classic processors.  And there’s no guarantee that the mechanisms of isolation will experience the same cost savings that computer chip technology has enjoyed.

Moore’s Law might not end because of some quantum tunneling limit.  It might end with the economics of protecting ever smaller logic components from the environment becoming increasingly untenable.  Toward its end, we might see a return to large expensive centralized supercomputers, in heavily shielded installations, that most of us access through the cloud for specific purposes.

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