Copyright ©2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Monday's the business news focuses on technology, and today the chip behind it all.

Most of us never see a silicon chip but we do see the results of its growing power: high definition television sets, cell phones with cameras, faster and smarter computers. And so that chip is the subject of the final part of our series on how new technology is changing our lives.

Ever shrinking microchips are not only giving the average person new products, but are also helping the scientific community.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Chips. That's what Syntax Corporation was bragging about in a recent commercial promoting the high resolution of its Olivia screen.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Soaring to new heights. The power is in the chip, the power is in the chip.

SYDELL: Indeed, much of the power behind the information age is in the chip, says American technology research analyst Satija Chilara(ph).

Mr. SATIJA CHILARA (Technology Research Analyst): Chips are the brains behind every application, whether it's PC or a handset or networking applications. They're the brains behind them. So this is fueling the information age, if you will.

SYDELL: Last year, chips were a $230 billion industry, and analysts predict it will grow another six percent this year. The largest chip manufacturer in the world is Intel Corporation. At its chip fabrication plant in Portland, Oregon, the company keeps making its chips more powerful and smaller, in bigger and bigger facilities.

Mr. MARK BOHR (Senior Fellow and Director of Process Architecture and Integration, Intel Corporation): This is a very large clean room. It's actually-the size of the clean room is roughly the size of three and a half football fields.

SYDELL: Mark Bohr is a senior fellow at Intel. He's standing by the door of one of the chip fabrication plants. Unlike the noisy factories of the industrial age, the inside of a FAB is quiet, white and clean.

To keep the plant sterile, people who enter must be dressed in special white suits.

Mr. BOHR: Looking through the windows, you can see the racks of bunny suits. So people go in, they put on hairnets and gloves and booties and then the complete bunny suit before they enter into the clean room.

SYDELL: This area must be sterile because the wiring laid down on the chips is as small as a virus. The smaller the wiring, the more transistors fit on a chip and the more tasks the chip can do.

In another room near the fabrication center, special microscopes are able to focus in on processors.

Mr. BOHR: You need this type of resolution capability to really see if the film has gone down the way you expect, and also to judge whether there are any defects, even at the atomic level.

SYDELL: The co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, observed in 1965 that the number of transistors on a silicon chip was likely to double every 18 months. He's been right so far. Eventually chip manufacturers will reach a point where they can't fit more transistors on a silicon chip, but very few in the computer industry think it will be a problem in the next five to ten years.

Still, in anticipation, scientists are further investigating nanotechnology and alternatives to silicon such as carbon. The push is to keep getting smaller, because more powerful chips will make technology possible that most people never anticipated.

How about this: virtual autopsies. At Mountain View, California-based SGI, Ofshud Misterie(ph) sits in front of a large 3D screen to display the autopsy technology. Misterie is with the company's advanced visualization division. This scanner enables doctors to get a complete three-dimensional picture of the body without cutting the skin.

Mr. OFSHUD MISTERIE (SGI): And here you can start just by pushing one single button, seeing the internal organs. So you know, how did this person die? Was there part of the rib that punctured her heart?

SYDELL: Misterie says doctors like this technology because it's non-invasive, and families prefer it over having their loved ones cut open.

In criminal cases, it can be effective in helping juries understand the extent of injuries. In fact, Misterie is projecting the image of the body of a woman killed in a drunk-driving accident. He says lawyers in that case felt more comfortable showing these images to the jury.

Mr. MISTERIE: You could traditionally do the same autopsy images. Cut the body up, take photographs. But those are very gruesome, and sometimes they're not admissible because, you know, you don't want the jury throwing up on these very gory images.

SYDELL: Misterie says dentists are also discovering this technology and may begin to use it in the near future. However, they must be cautious because the scanner does generate radiation.

While chips make it possible to see the microscopic and the hidden, they can also help scientists and researchers see the big picture. Pamela McCowan, a meteorologist with Education Research Services in Asheville, North Carolina, and a client of SGI, says more powerful computers create more accurate forecasts.

Ms. PAMELA MCCOWAN (Meteorologist): When we try to solve issues that are as complex as the flow of the fluid in the atmospheres, we need significant computing power in order to try to produce a resolution that actually creates meaningful results. So the more power we've got computing-wise, the better a model we'll be able to create.

SYDELL: Still, McCowan admits all that computing power doesn't solve certain other problems. Meteorologists were able to predict the path and intensity of Hurricane Katrina with remarkable accuracy.

Ms. MCCOWAN: It was communicated well to the folks along the coast that this was a monstrous storm, it was going to be catastrophic. But some people were simply not able or chose not to leave. And I wish we could affect that, but so far in the science of meteorology we've not been able to affect that.

SYDELL: Indeed, there's much that processing power can't change, says analyst Sandy Harrison, of Pacific Growth Equities. He thinks there's a point of diminishing returns.

Mr. SANDY HARRISON (Analyst, Pacific Growth Equities): The capabilities don't always mean that you're going to actually do it and use it. And are we out there proving that we can do things just so we can prove it? Or are we proving it because it's actually functional?

SYDELL: But as advances are made, prices eventually come down and enable more innovation, so consumers can take advantage of this new technology. A decade ago, who would have thought that cell phones with cameras would become so popular?

Many in the chip industry consider it relatively easy to predict the continuing advances in their technology, but it's much harder to foresee how inventors and designers will use that technology to create breakthrough products for commercial and scientific use. It's even harder to know which products will get consumers excited.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: You can explore other stories about future technology at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.