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Andrew Jerabek

No one denies that computers are speedy critters. For some chores, though, faster is always better. So computer scientists are hatching a novel concept that could increase number-crunching power--and trim costs as well. Call it the chameleon chip.

Today's microprocessors sport a general-purpose design, which is both good and bad. Good: One chip can run a range of programs. That's why you don't need separate computers for different jobs, such as crunching spreadsheets or editing digital photos. Bad: For any one application, much of the chip's circuitry isn't needed, and the presence of those "wasted" circuits slows things down. Suppose, instead, that the chip's circuits could be tailored specifically for the problem at hand--say, computer-aided design--and then rewired, on the fly, when you loaded a tax-preparation program. One set of chips, little bigger than a credit card, could do almost anything, even changing into a wireless phone. The market for such versatile marvels would be huge, and would translate into lower costs for users.

Chameleon chips would be an extension of what can already be done with field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAS). An FPGA is covered with a grid of wires. At each crossover, there's a switch that can be semipermanently opened or closed by sending it a special signal. Usually the chip must first be inserted in a little box that sends the programming signals. But now, labs in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. are developing techniques to rewire FPGA-like chips anytime--and even software that can map out circuitry that's optimized for specific problems. The chips still won't change colors. But they may well color the way we use computers in years to come.