Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created computer chips that can be configured to perform complex calculations and store massive amounts of information within the same integrated unit, and communicate efficiently with other chips. Called “liquid silicon” — liquid for software and silicon for hardware — the technology has uses in data-intensive applications such as facial or voice recognition, natural language processing, and graph analytics.

Computer chip performance is evaluated using custom-built automated testing equipment. (Photo by Stephanie Precourt/UW-Madison College of Engineering)

Processor and memory chips typically are produced separately using different manufacturing foundries, then are assembled together by system engineers on printed circuit boards to make computers and smartphones. The separation means that even simple operations, such as searches, require multiple steps — getting data from the memory, and sending the data through the deep storage hierarchy to the processor core.

The new chips incorporate memory, computation, and communication in the same device using a layered design called monolithic 3D integration in which silicon and semiconductor circuitry are on the bottom, connected with solid-state memory arrays on the top using dense metal-to-metal links. The technology will enable end users to configure the devices to allocate more or fewer resources to memory or computation, depending on what types of applications a system needs to run.

The researchers are also developing software that translates popular programming languages into the chip's machine code — a process called compilation. The software will let programmers port their applications directly onto the new type of hardware without changing their coding habits.

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