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How Bell Labs Missed the Microchip

The man who pioneered the transistor never appreciated its full potential

14 min read
Photo: AT&T Archives and History Center
Photo: AT&T Archives and History Center

imgFlawed Hero: Jack A. Morton led Bell Labs’ effort to transform the transistor from a research curiosity into a commercial product. But his aversion to microchips would later cost AT&T dearly.Photo: AT&T Archives and History Center

At 4:15 a.m. on 11 December 1971, firemen extinguishing an automobile blaze in the New Jersey hamlet of Neshanic Station were shocked to discover a badly charred body slumped face-down in the back seat. It proved to be the remains of Jack A. Morton, the vice president of electronic technology at Bell Telephone Laboratories, in Murray Hill, N.J. He had last been seen talking with two men at the nearby Neshanic Inn just before its 2 a.m. closing—about 100 meters from the abandoned railroad tracks where his flaming Volvo sports coupe was spotted. Local police quickly arrested and booked the men for murder.

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Video Friday: Humanoid Soccer

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Humans and human-size humanoid robots stand together on an indoor soccer field at the beginning of a game

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON

Enjoy today’s videos!

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Computing With Chemicals Makes Faster, Leaner AI

Battery-inspired artificial synapses are gaining ground

5 min read
Array of devices on a chip

This analog electrochemical memory (ECRAM) array provides a prototype for artificial synapses in AI training.

IBM research

How far away could an artificial brain be? Perhaps a very long way off still, but a working analogue to the essential element of the brain’s networks, the synapse, appears closer at hand now.

That’s because a device that draws inspiration from batteries now appears surprisingly well suited to run artificial neural networks. Called electrochemical RAM (ECRAM), it is giving traditional transistor-based AI an unexpected run for its money—and is quickly moving toward the head of the pack in the race to develop the perfect artificial synapse. Researchers recently reported a string of advances at this week’s IEEE International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM 2022) and elsewhere, including ECRAM devices that use less energy, hold memory longer, and take up less space.

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