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The Era of General Purpose Computers is Ending

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A printed circuit board.

"The rise of general-purpose computer chips has been remarkable. So, too, could be their fall."

Credit: The Next Platform

Moore's Law has underwritten a remarkable period of growth and stability for the computer industry. The doubling of transistor density at a predictable cadence has fueled not only five decades of increased processor performance, but also the rise of the general-purpose computing model. However, according to a pair of researchers at MIT and Aachen University, that's all coming to an end.

Neil Thompson Research Scientist at MIT's Computer Science and A.I. Lab and a Visiting Professor at Harvard, and Svenja Spanuth, a graduate student from RWTH Aachen University, contend what we have been covering here at The Next Platform all along;  that the disintegration of Moore's Law, along with new applications like deep learning and cryptocurrency mining, are driving the industry away from general-purpose microprocessors and toward a model that favors specialized microprocessor. "The rise of general-purpose computer chips has been remarkable. So, too, could be their fall," they argue.

As they point out, general-purpose computing was not always the norm. In the early days of supercomputing, custom-built vector-based architectures from companies like Cray dominated the HPC industry. A version of this still exists today in the vector systems built by NEC. But thanks to the speed at which Moore's Law has improved the price-performance of transistors over the last few decades, the economic forces has greatly favored general-purpose processors.

That's mainly because the cost of developing and manufacturing a custom chip is between $30 and $80 million. So even for users demanding high performance microprocessors, the benefit of adopting a specialized architecture is quickly dissipated as the shrinking transistors in general-purpose chips erases any initial performance gains afforded by customized solutions. Meanwhile, the costs incurred by transistor shrinking can be amortized across millions of processors.


From The Next Platform
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