US Focuses on Invigorating ‘Chiplet’ Production in the US

More than a decade ago engineers at AMD “began toying with a radical idea,” remembers the New York Times. Instead of designing one big microprocessor, they “conceived of creating one from smaller chips that would be packaged tightly together to work like one electronic brain.”

But with “diminishing returns” from Moore’s Law, packaging smaller chips suddenly becomes more important. [Alternate URL here.] As much as 80% of microprocessors will be using these designs by 2027, according to an estimate from the market research firm Yole Group cited by the Times:

The concept, sometimes called chiplets, caught on in a big way, with AMD, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, IBM and Intel introducing such products. Chiplets rapidly gained traction because smaller chips are cheaper to make, while bundles of them can top the performance of any single slice of silicon. The strategy, based on advanced packaging technology, has since become an essential tool to enabling progress in semiconductors. And it represents one of the biggest shifts in years for an industry that drives innovations in fields like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and military hardware. “Packaging is where the action is going to be,” said Subramanian Iyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped pioneer the chiplet concept. “It’s happening because there is actually no other way.”

The catch is that such packaging, like making chips themselves, is overwhelmingly dominated by companies in Asia. Although the United States accounts for around 12 percent of global semiconductor production, American companies provide just 3 percent of chip packaging, according to IPC, a trade association. That issue has now landed chiplets in the middle of U.S. industrial policymaking. The CHIPS Act, a $52 billion subsidy package that passed last summer, was seen as President Biden’s move to reinvigorate domestic chip making by providing money to build more sophisticated factories called “fabs.” But part of it was also aimed at stoking advanced packaging factories in the United States to capture more of that essential process… The Commerce Department is now accepting applications for manufacturing grants from the CHIPS Act, including for chip packaging factories. It is also allocating funding to a research program specifically on advanced packaging…

Some chip packaging companies are moving quickly for the funding. One is Integra Technologies in Wichita, Kan., which announced plans for a $1.8 billion expansion there but said that was contingent on receiving federal subsidies. Amkor Technology, an Arizona packaging service that has most of its operations in Asia, also said it was talking to customers and government officials about a U.S. production presence… Packaging services still need others to supply the substrates that chiplets require to connect to circuit boards and one another… But the United States has no major makers of those substrates, which are primarily produced in Asia and evolved from technologies used in manufacturing circuit boards. Many U.S. companies have also left that business, another worry that industry groups hope will spur federal funding to help board suppliers start making substrates.

In March, Mr. Biden issued a determination that advanced packaging and domestic circuit board production were essential for national security, and announced $50 million in Defense Production Act funding for American and Canadian companies in those fields. Even with such subsidies, assembling all the elements required to reduce U.S. dependence on Asian companies “is a huge challenge,” said Andreas Olofsson, who ran a Defense Department research effort in the field before founding a packaging start-up called Zero ASIC. “You don’t have suppliers. You don’t have a work force. You don’t have equipment. You have to sort of start from scratch.”

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New Biocomputing Method Uses Enzymes As Catalysts For DNA-Based Molecular Computing

Researchers at the University of Minnesota report via Phys.Org: Biocomputing is typically done either with live cells or with non-living, enzyme-free molecules. Live cells can feed themselves and can heal, but it can be difficult to redirect cells from their ordinary functions toward computation. Non-living molecules solve some of the problems of live cells, but have weak output signals and are difficult to fine-tune and regulate. In new research published in Nature Communications, a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota has developed a platform for a third method of biocomputing: Trumpet, or Transcriptional RNA Universal Multi-Purpose GatE PlaTform.

Trumpet uses biological enzymes as catalysts for DNA-based molecular computing. Researchers performed logic gate operations, similar to operations done by all computers, in test tubes using DNA molecules. A positive gate connection resulted in a phosphorescent glow. The DNA creates a circuit, and a fluorescent RNA compound lights up when the circuit is completed, just like a lightbulb when a circuit board is tested.

The research team demonstrated that:

– The Trumpet platform has the simplicity of molecular biocomputing with added signal amplification and programmability.
– The platform is reliable for encoding all universal Boolean logic gates (NAND, NOT, NOR, AND, and OR), which are fundamental to programming languages.
– The logic gates can be stacked to build more complex circuits.

The team also developed a web-based tool facilitating the design of sequences for the Trumpet platform. “Trumpet is a non-living molecular platform, so we don’t have most of the problems of live cell engineering,” said co-author Kate Adamala, assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences. “We don’t have to overcome evolutionary limitations against forcing cells to do things they don’t want to do. This also gives Trumpet more stability and reliability, with our logic gates avoiding the leakage problems of live cell operations.”

“It could make a lot of long-term neural implants possible. The applications could range from strictly medical, like healing damaged nerve connections or controlling prosthetics, to more sci-fi applications like entertainment or learning and augmented memory,” added Adamala.

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PC CPU Shipments See Steepest Decline In 30 Years

According to a new report by Dean McCarron of Mercury Research, the x86 processor market has just endured “the largest on-quarter and on-year declines in our 30-year history.” “Based on previously published third-party data, McCarron is also reasonably sure that the 2022 Q4 and full-year numbers represent the worst downturn in PC processor history,” adds Tom’s Hardware. From the report: The x86 processor downturn observed has been precipitated by the terrible twosome of lower demand and an inventory correction. This menacing pincer movement has resulted in 2022 unit shipments of 374 million processors (excluding ARM), a figure 21% lower than in 2021. Revenues were $65 billion, down 19 percent YoY. McCarron was keen to emphasize that Mercury’s gloomy stats about x86 shipments through 2022 do not necessarily directly correlate with x86 PC (processors) shipments to end users. Earlier, we mentioned that the two downward driving forces were inventory adjustments and a slowing of sales — but which played the most significant part in this x86 record slump?

The Mercury Research analyst explained, “Most of the downturn in shipments is blamed on excess inventory shipping in prior quarters impacting current sales.” A perfect storm is thus brewing as “CPU suppliers are also deliberately limiting shipments to help increase the rate of inventory consumption… [and] PC demand for processors is lower, and weakening macroeconomic concerns are driving PC OEMs to reduce their inventory as well.” Mercury also asserted that the trend is likely to continue through H1 2023. Its thoughts about the underlying inventory shenanigans should also be evidenced by upcoming financials from the major players in the next few months. […]

McCarron shines a glimmer of light in the wake of this gloom, reminding us that overall processor revenue was still higher in 2022 than any year before the 2020s began. Another ray of light shone on AMD, with its gains in server CPU share, one of the only segments which saw some growth in Q4 2022. Also, AMD gained market share in the shrinking desktop and laptop markets.

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Report: ‘Matter’ Standard Has ‘Undeniable Momentum’

The Verge reports “undeniable momentum” for Matter, the royalty-free interoperability standard that “allows smart home devices from any manufacturer to talk to other devices directly and locally with no need to use the cloud.”

“Matter was the buzzword throughout CES 2023 this year, with most companies even remotely connected to the smart home loudly discussing their Matter plans.”

The new smart home standard was featured in several keynotes and displayed prominently in smart home device makers’ booths as well as in Google, Amazon, and Samsung’s big, showy displays. More importantly, dozens of companies and manufacturers announced specific plans. Several companies said they would update entire product lines, while others announced new ones, sometimes with actual dates and prices. And Matter controllers have become a major thing, with at least four brand-new ones debuting at CES. Interestingly, nearly all of them have a dual or triple function, helping banish the specter of seemingly pointless white hubs stuck in your router closet….

Matter works over the protocols Thread, Wi-Fi, and ethernet and has been jointly developed by Apple, Google, Samsung, Amazon, and pretty much every other smart home brand you can name, big or small. If a device supports Matter, it will work locally with Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, Apple Home, Google Home, and any other smart home platform that supports Matter. It will also be controllable by any of the four voice assistants….

The big four have turned on Matter support on their platforms, but Amazon’s approach has been piecemeal, and aside from Apple, nobody supports onboarding devices to Matter on iOS yet.

However, that is shifting: at CES, Amazon announced a full rollout by spring, and Samsung’s Jaeyeon Jung told The Verge that Matter support is coming to its iOS app this month. There’s still no news on Matter support in Google Home’s iOS app. Then there’s the whole competing Thread network issue, although that sounds like it will be resolved sooner rather than later….

The Matter device drought should be over soon — although, judging by most of these ship dates, not until at least the second half of 2023.
“It’s also likely we’ll see dedicated bridges coming out that can bring Z-Wave and other products with proprietary protocols into Matter….”

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Asus Brings Glasses-Free 3D To OLED Laptops

During the CES 2023 in Las Vegas today, Asus announced an upcoming feature that allows users to view and work with content in 3D without wearing 3D glasses. Ars Technica reports: Similar technology has been used in a small number of laptops and displays before, but Asus is incorporating the feature for the first time in OLED laptop screens. Combined with high refresh rates, unique input methods like an integrated dial, and the latest CPUs and laptop GPUs, the company is touting the laptops with the Asus Spatial Vision feature as powerful, niche options for creative professionals looking for new ways to work.

Asus’ Spatial Vision 3D tech is debuting on two laptops in Q2 this year: the ProArt Studiobook 16 3D OLED (H7604) and Vivobook Pro 16 3D OLED (K6604). The laptops each feature a 16-inch, 3200×2000 OLED panel with a 120 Hz refresh rate. The OLED panel is topped with a layer of optical resin, a glass panel, and a lenticular lens layer. The lenticular lens works with a pair of eye-tracking cameras to render real-time images for each eye that adjust with your physical movements. In a press briefing, an Asus spokesperson said that because the OLED screens claim a low gray-to-gray response time of 0.2 ms, as well as the extremely high contrast that comes with OLED, there’s no crosstalk between the left and right eye’s image, ensuring more realistic looking content. However, Asus’ product pages for the laptops acknowledge that experiences may vary, and some may still suffer from “dizziness or crosstalk due to other reasons, and this varies according to the individual.” Asus said it’s looking to offer demos to users, which would be worth trying out before committing to this unique feature.

On top of the lenticular lens is a 2D/3D liquid crystal switching layer, which is topped with a glass front panel with an anti-reflective coating. According to Asus, it’ll be easy to switch from 2D mode to 3D and back again. When the laptops aren’t in 3D mode, their display will appear as a highly specced OLED screen, Asus claimed. The laptops can apply a 3D effect to any game, movie, or content that supports 3D. However, content not designed for 3D display may appear more “stuttery,” per a demo The Verge saw. The laptops are primarily for workers working with and creating 3D models and content, such as designers and architects. The two laptops will ship with Spatial Vision Hub software. It includes a Model Viewer, Player for movies and videos, Photo Viewer for transforming side-by-side photos shot with a 180-degree camera into one stereoscopic 3D image, and Connector, a plug-in that Asus’ product page says is compatible with “various apps and tools, so you can easily view any project in 3D.”

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Lenovo Announces Consumer AR Glasses That Can Tether To iPhones

Lenovo is finally selling AR glasses for consumers with the recently-announced Lenovo Glasses T1, which Ars Technica’s Scharon Harding got to demo. Here’s an excerpt from her report: With their Micro OLED displays and required tether to Windows, macOS, Android, or iOS devices, they bring some notable features to a space that has piqued industry-wide interest but is still likely far from becoming ubiquitous. The early version of the T1 I tried had limited features; I was mostly only able to view a homepage with basic menu options and a desktop with icons for apps, like web browsing. Although the glasses weren’t ready for me to watch a movie or hop around apps, I was impressed at how clear text and menu items were. This was in a sunny room with exceedingly tall windows. Even when facing sunlight, the few colors on display seemed vibrant and the text legible.

Lenovo specs the displays with 10,000:1 contrast and 1920×1080 pixels per eye. The glasses are also TUV-certified for low blue light and flicker reduction, according to Lenovo. Much more time is needed to explore and challenge the Micro OLED displays before I pass final judgment. But the combination of smaller pixels and, from what I saw thus far, strong colors, should accommodate screens so close to the eyes. More broadly speaking, brightness can be a concern with OLED technologies, but the small demo I saw fared well in a sun-flushed room.

I used the Glasses T1 while it was connected to an Android smartphone via its USB-C cable, but it’s also supposed to work with PCs, macOS devices, and, via an adapter sold separately, iPhones. […] With no processor or battery, it’s easier for the glasses to stay trim. There are also no sensors or cameras like the Lenovo ThinkReality A3, announced last year, has. Other T1 features include a pair of speakers (one near each temple) and the ability to add prescription lenses. […] The Glasses T1 are expected to be available in select markets in 2023 after debuting in China (as the Lenovo Yoga Glasses) this year. Lenovo didn’t set a price, but I was told it’s hoping to keep the glasses under $500.

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iFixit On Right To Repair’s Remaining Obstacles, Hope

iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens sat down with Ars Technica to discuss the fight for the right to repair. Here’s an excerpt from their report: Tech repairs got complicated in 1998 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF]. Section 1201 of the copyright law essentially made it illegal to distribute tools for, or to break encryption on, manufactured products. Created with DVD piracy in mind, it made fixing things like computers and tractors significantly harder, if not illegal, without manufacturer permission. It also represented “a total sea change from what historic property rights have been,” Wiens said. This makes Washington, DC, the primary battleground for the fight for the right to repair. “Because this law was passed at the federal level, the states can’t preempt. Congress at the federal level reset copyright policy. This fix has to happen at the US federal level,” Wiens told Ars Technica during the Road to Frontiers talk.

The good news is that every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss potential exemptions. Right to repair advocates are hoping Congress will schedule this year’s hearing soon. Wiens also highlighted the passing of the Freedom to Repair Act [PDF] introduced earlier this year as critical for addressing Section 1201 and creating a permanent exemption for repairing tech products.

Apple’s self-service repair program launched last month marked a huge step forward for the right to repair initiated by a company that has shown long-standing resistance. Wiens applauded the program, which provides repair manuals for the iPhone 12, 13, and newest SE and will eventually extend to computers. He emphasized how hard it is for iFixit to reverse-engineer such products to determine important repair details, like whether a specific screw is 1 or 1.1 mm. […]

Wiens envisioned a world where gadgets not only last longer but where you may also build relationships with local businesses to keep your products functioning. He lamented the loss of businesses like local camera and TV repair shops extinguished by vendors no longer supplying parts and tools. […] He also discussed the idea of giving gadgets second and even third lives: An aged smartphone could become a baby monitor or a smart thermostat. “I think we should be talking about lifespans of smartphones in terms of 20, 25 years,” Wiens said.
The livestream of the discussion can be viewed here.

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