Ideal for complex calculations or as a between-meals snack

Author: Ed Cohen

When Peter Kogge, a 1968 Notre Dame graduate, makes presentations to his fellow computer scientists about the work he’s doing, helping develop a memory chip unimaginably smarter than anything in existence, he has a surprise waiting for the audience at the end: The miracle chip is already in production.

One of the final slides in Kogge’s Powerpoint presentation materializes, and there on the screen is a photograph of the chip. Arrows point out features like its “single-layer interconnect” and the advanced “bisquit-based substrate.”

By this point audience members ought to have realized something about Kogge, ND’s McCourtney Professor of Computer Science and Engineering: He has a sense of humor. What they’re looking at isn’t a memory chip. It’s a cookie.

The gag does have a basis in reality, however. Kogge really is leading a group of Notre Dame faculty and students designing what would be the world’s smartest memory chip. The chip is intended as a component in an envisioned super-supercomputer a thousand times faster than the fastest in operation today. The computer is being developed by a group of 17 universities, laboratories, government agencies and private companies.

Plans call for the computer’s memory to be built on a technology Kogge pioneered at IBM, where he worked for 25 years before joining the Notre Dame faculty in 1994. A conventional computer’s memory is separate from the microprocessor. But in Kogge’s design, multiple microprocessors are embedded in memory chips.

The revolutionary scheme is known as Processors in Memory, or PIMs. However, as Kogge discovered at a supermarket not long ago, “PIMs” already exist. They’re a brand of fancy French cookies.

The computer scientist keeps one box each of strawberry and orange PIMS on his office bookshelves. There are other keepsakes, including a model of the space shuttle and a miniature Mars Pathfinder lander. An expert in computer architecture, Kogge designed one of the computers that has flown on the space shuttle, and he was a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab during the Pathfinder mission.

For the supercomputer project, Kogge even has Notre Dame undergraduate students involved. They lend a hand by investigating design approaches for the chips. This activity meshes well with the engineering college’s Bits to Chips program, which Kogge enthusiastically supports. Under the program, students learn how to design a microprocessor and write programs to control it and then actually fabricate chips out of silicon.

Kogge, who teaches advanced programming and computer architecture, says leaders of the supercomputer project hope to build the PIM-utilizing machine some time in the next decade. Even with today’s electronics micro-miniaturization, he acknowledges, the machine will “easily fill a four-story building.”

Its potential applications would also be immense. Kogge mentions the modeling of groundwater pollution to predict its destination, and simulating the early universe or weather modeling. Patients undergoing an MRI could walk between two sensors as if passing through a metal detector at the airport.

“The reason you’re in there [an MRI tube] so long now is there’s not enough computing power to handle the data being collected.”

With a computer capable of making a million billion complex calculations a second, a lack of computing power would no longer be a problem.