Chip design: an inside look


Bram Nauta is professor of IC design at the University of Twente.

Reading time: 3 minutes

Bram Nauta takes a closer look at what makes IC designers tick.

If you’re a fan of technology, you may already be familiar with chip design. For those unfamiliar, chip design is the process of creating integrated circuits (ICs) that are used in computers, phones and other electronic devices. It’s a complex process and requires a lot of expertise and experience to get it right.

But what most people don’t know is that there’s a lot of fun to be had when it comes to chip design. For instance, when you’re designing a chip for a new device, it’s like playing a game of “guess what the user wants.” You have to think of all the possible features and functions the user might want and then design a chip that can do all of them. And then you have to make sure the chip works with all the other components in the device.

And don’t forget the fun of debugging. Debugging is the process of identifying and fixing errors in a chip design. It can be a long, tedious process and it requires a lot of patience and problem-solving skills. But when you finally figure out the root of the problem and fix it, it’s incredibly gratifying.

And then there’s the satisfaction of seeing a chip design come to life. After months of hard work, you get to watch as the chip is tested and put into a device. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and pride, knowing that something you designed is now helping people around the world.

So, the next time you hear someone talking about chip design, don’t be intimidated. Chip design is a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Well, that was easy! I just asked ChatGPT to write a funny column about chip design, and the words above flowed across my screen much faster than I could type or even think.

I find this ChatGPT tool amazing; it writes for you as if you had an omniscient assistant who can type with the speed of light. It doesn’t complain, it just works. I tried several questions, including letters to apply for a PhD position, and the result was actually very nice! Much better than the ones I receive daily.

I’d almost hire a candidate using ChatGPT. I’d ask him to invent a cool new circuit concept, and I’d be surprised by a wave of wild ideas. I wouldn’t know if these ideas are valid or where the information comes from, but honestly, that’s also often the case when humans are asked the same question. You always have to ask critical questions and find the source material. Maybe ChatGPT can even design the chip, write a paper or a thesis and do the PhD defense? The moment this becomes possible will be here sooner than we think.

The cool thing is, this is done with conventional electronic chips. No overhyped end-of-Moore’s-law replacement technology. Not even a photonic or quantum computer is needed, just billions and billions of plain vanilla transistors at work, simultaneously distributed over a bunch of data centers. I find this truly amazing. And this is just the beginning.

What about our students who must write reports? Will they use ChatGPT and mislead the professors? How do we know it’s the student writing and not this AI tool? The answer is easy: if it looks so well written, it must have been the AI tool; at least my students generally can’t write this well.

And what about my next Bits&Chips column? Will ChatGPT write it or me? You might never find out!