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Game Changer

Bijan Davari changed the computer chip

Bijan Davari changed the computer chip
Bijan Davari is vice president of Next Generation Computing Systems/Technology at IBM.

In 1954, Texas Instruments engineers radically miniaturized the transistor radio, making it simultaneously less expensive and more powerful. Their reimagination of what had been a slow-selling semiconductor technology changed the world: the transistor radio became the most popular electronic device in history, and the semiconductor, of course, became the heart of modern technology.

Bijan Davari, who pioneered critical functions of the modern computer chip, was born that same year in Tehran. At age 11 his dad handed him his first transistor radio. “It was so much smaller and more elegant,” says Davari, who tinkered with vacuum-tube radios. “I could see that it was a game changer, and that’s how I got started.”

By the time he was in his 30s, Davari was leading the IBM research team that would produce another game changer—the first generation of high-performance, low-voltage logic (complementary metal oxide semiconductor, or CMOS) that characterizes computer chips. “I’ve always been interested in the ‘how’ of making significant advances in function, particularly when it’s believed it can’t be done,” Davari says. Today we take it for granted that these chips, which have gone from megahertz to gigahertz performance standards within 15 years, power everything from iPhones to supercomputers. Without Davari’s breakthroughs, computers would be much hotter, slower and noisier.

Right from the start, Davari and his team challenged conventional thinking. “Assumptions were that you had to have high voltage to get a lot of power,” he says. “If you lowered voltage, it was assumed performance would get worse.” No one wanted to bother much with CMOS, a low-voltage technology that powered wristwatches. Davari’s team proved if you lowered the voltage, scaled down chip components and used different materials, CMOS became powerful. “You’re driving less load, so you don’t need as much current,” he adds. “If you’re driving large loads to make something fast, they get hot, and you get to a point where you can’t cool it.”

He didn’t stop there. In 1996 Davari was named an IBM Fellow—the company’s highest honor—for his work; last year he received an award from IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) for outstanding contributions to his field.

Today Davari is working to achieve significant technological breakthroughs at the system level as vice president of Next Generation Computing Systems/Technology at IBM. Future performance gains will come through more integration—such as IBM’s new electrical/optical device chip—as well as through parallel processing at the system and software levels. Davari says we’ll eventually be able to connect to very powerful, highly specialized applications through cloud and wireless environments.

“You’ll be able to participate in a professional soccer game, for example, without changing the outcome,” he says. “The distinction between the real and computing world will be totally blurred.”

Sara Aase is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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