There are some things about which I am undoubtedly considered a crusty old fogey, the abominable NO man, an ostrich with its head in the sand, and so on. Oh frabjous day! I now have a word for such things, courtesy of Charlie Stross, who wrote:
Just contemplate, for a moment, how you'd react to some guy from the IT sector walking into your place of work to evangelize a wonderful new piece of technology that will revolutionize your job, once everybody in the general population shells out £500 for a copy and you do a lot of hard work to teach them how to use it, And, on closer interrogation, you discover that he doesn't actually know what you do for a living; he's just certain that his WNPoT is going to revolutionize it. Now imagine that this happens (different IT marketing guy, different WNPoT, same pack drill) approximately once every two months for a five year period. You'd learn to tune him out, wouldn't you?I've been through that pack drill more times than I can recall, and yes, I tune them out. The WNPoTs in my case were all about technology for computing itself, of course. Here are a few examples; they are sure to step on number of toes:
- Any new programming language existing only for parallel processing, or any reason other than making programming itself simpler and more productive (see my post 101 parallel languages)
- Multi-node single system image (see my post Multi-Multicore Single System Image)
- Memristors, a new circuit type. A key point here is that exactly one company (HP) is working on it. Good technologies instantly crystallize consortia around themselves. Also, HP isn't a silicon technology company in the first place.
- Quantum computing. Primarily good for just one thing: Cracking codes.
- Brain simulation and strong artificial intelligence (really "thinking," whatever that means). Current efforts were beautifully characterized by John Horgan, in a SciAm guest blog: 'Current brain simulations resemble the "planes" and "radios" that Melanesian cargo-cult tribes built out of palm fronds, coral and coconut shells after being occupied by Japanese and American troops during World War II.'
The particular issue of retred ideas aside, genuinely new and different things have to face up to what Charlie Stross describes above, in particular the part about not understanding what you do for a living. That point, for processor and system design, is a lot more important than one might expect, due to a seldom-publicized social fact: Processor and system design organizations are incredibly, insanely, conservative. They have good reason to be. Consider:
Those guys are building some of the most, if not the most, intricately complex structures ever created in the history of mankind. Furthermore, they can't be fixed in the field with an endless stream of patches. They have to just plain work – not exactly in the first run, although that is always sought, but in the second or, at most, third; beyond that money runs out.
The result they produce must also please, not just a well-defined demographic, but a multitude of masters from manufacturing to a wide range of industries and geographies. And of course it has to be cost- and performance-competitive when released, which entails a lot of head-scratching and deep breathing when the multi-year process begins.
Furthermore, each new design does it all over again. I'm talking about the "tock" phase for Intel; there's much less development work in the "tick" process shrink phase. Development organizations that aren't Intel don't get that breather. You don't "re-use" much silicon. (I don't think you ever re-use much code, either, with a few major exceptions; but that's a different issue.)
This is a very high stress operation. A huge investment can blow up if one of thousands of factors is messed up.
What they really do to accomplish all this is far from completely documented. I doubt it's even consciously fully understood. (What gets written down by someone paid from overhead to satisfy an ISO requirement is, of course, irrelevant.)
In this situation, is it any wonder the organizations are almost insanely conservative? Their members cannot even conceive of something except as a delta from both the current product and the current process used to create it, because that's what worked. And it worked within the budget. And they have their total intellectual capital invested in it. Anything not presented as a delta of both the current product and process is rejected out of hand. The process and product are intertwined in this; what was done (product) was, with no exceptions, what you were able to do in the context (process).
An implication is that they do not trust anyone who lacks the scars on their backs from having lived that long, high-stress process. You can't learn it from a book; if you haven't done it, you don't understand it. The introduction of anything new by anyone without the tribal scars is simply impossible. This is so true that I know of situations where taking a new approach to processor design required forming a new, separate organization. It began with a high-level corporate Act of God that created a new high-profile organization from scratch, dedicated to the new direction, staffed with a mix of outside talent and a few carefully-selected high-talent open-minded people pirated from the original organization. Then, very gradually, more talent from the old organization was siphoned off and blended into the new one until there was no old organization left other than a maintenance crew. The new organization had its own process, along with its own product.
This is why I regard most WNPoT announcements from a company's "research" arm as essentially meaningless. Whatever it is, it won't get into products without an "Act of God" like that described above. WNPoTs from academia or other outside research? Fuggedaboudit. Anything from outside is rejected unless it was originally nurtured by someone with deep, respected tribal scars, sufficiently so that that person thinks they completely own it. Otherwise it doesn't stand a chance.
Now I have a term to sum up all of this: WNPoT. Thanks, Charlie.
Oh, by the way, if you want a good reason why the Moore's Law half-death that flattened clock speeds produced multi- / many-core as a response, look no further. They could only do more of what they already knew how to do. It also ties into how the very different computing designs that are the other reaction to flat clocks came not from CPU vendors but outsiders – GPU vendors (and other accelerator vendors; see my post Why Accelerators Now?). They, of course, were also doing more of what they knew how to do, with a bit of Sutherland's Wheel of Reincarnation and DARPA funding thrown in for Nvidia. None of this is a criticism, just an observation.