HP’s Machine — the future of computing?May 5, 2015
With diminishing returns on the horizon as current silicon-based, transistor technology reaches physical limitations, HP has set out to develop the next generation of computing technology. They have an ambitious plan with a project called “The Machine” which is the largest R & D project in HP’s history.
In 1975 Gordon Moore famously postulated that the number of transistors in an electronic circuit will double in number or shrink by half about every 18 months. His predictions were so accurate it became known as “Moore’s Law.” While Moore’s Law has been the accepted norm for the last fifty years, many in the industry are seeing an end to exponential growth as we approach the miniaturization threshold of existing silicon-based computing technology.
Core components of “the Machine” are based on entirely new technologies one of which is the memristor, an ion-based non-volatile memory. First proposed by a physicist named Leon Chua in 1971 who theorized there was a missing fourth element to go along with the resistor, the capacitor and the inductor and dubbed it the memristor. All of these circuit components are linked by voltage, current, charge, and magnetic flux. Without getting into too much detail the memristor provides a relationship to magnetic flux and charge similar to what the resistor provides for voltage and current. The memristor represents a paradigm shift in how computers store memory and is poised to revolutionize the electronics industry as we know it.
Welcome to the era of “ionics”
The memristor incorporates electrically charged atoms or ions to store information. Memristors are also not bound by the binary code transistors depend on to store information, meaning it’s either on or it’s off. Memristor can have several states or levels of storage, such as zero, one-half, one-quarter, and one-third and several states in between. They don’t require power to maintain stored information like a transistor and instead store the power level. This variable state has been compared to how the human brain stores information and could provide the platform for an artificial intelligence—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
In traditional computers the hard drive stores memory, and RAM is the fast access to that stored memory. When the power is turned off, RAM memory is wiped clean on your computer. With the memristor the information is stored even when the power is turned off, like flash-based memory—but that’s as far as that comparison goes. Currently when you start your computer it takes a while to start because your computer is moving information to RAM memory and caching the information for use and starting up the OS. With memristors you would get immediate start up because the fast memory, RAM, basically becomes the storage as well.
This new technology will offer several benefits. Increased data storage, significantly lower power consumption and different ways of storing information with the variable charge model. Different materials can also be used for the substrate opening the door for a whole new class of microchip that can be embedded in all sorts of everyday items like paper cups, fabrics and windows. Along with this new way of storing and retrieving memory, a new way to move that data to other storage mediums and external devices will also be required.
Have you heard about Photonics?
Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?
Silicon Photonics use modified fiber-optic technology to transfer huge amounts of data with very little power linking racks of servers together replacing copper power and data transmission wiring. As proposed, the machine will provide the capacity of an entire data center in a form factor the size of a refrigerator. This is some ambitions stuff, but consider the first super computers took up entire rooms, and now you have the same computing power on your smart phone. HP produced the first memristor in 2006, and have set the bar high hoping to have the first prototype ready by 2016 and available to the public by 2020.
In addition to the revolutionary electronic technologies, a new operating system is also in the works. Linux ++ as it’s currently called, will be available to developers sometime this year so they can familiarize themselves with the new OS. The final version will be called “Carbon” and will be coded from the ground up.
It’s estimated that just the changes to memory storage and data transmission will create a system that’s six times more powerful and consumes just a tiny fraction (1.25%) of the energy used in today’s computers. This will not be an upgrade to your personal computer for quite a while, but a way for companies who utilize Big Data to store huge amounts of data and access that data faster and more efficiently. Think Google, large financial institutions and Artificial Intelligence.
The cost for these initial systems will likely be excessive. Initially, HP plans to use these systems for their own enterprise products. As with any new technology the price will come down as volume increases and manufacturing processes improve. Eventually HP plans to introduce small form factor products using memristor technology to the general public. The big players in the electronics industry are betting this new technology will replace silicon-based chips entirely and generate other areas of discovery.
However, it should be noted a Quantum computer is in the works as well. From the crib notes, it seems to do most of its processing in another dimension and processes massive amounts of data nearly instantaneously. Sounds like science fiction — more on that in another post.
A successful memristor was developed by HP in 2006 and has applied a significant amount of resources to this project. The company has estimated that as much as 75% of their R&D staff and resources will be needed to make this a reality and are pushing forward. HP’s first memristor-based prototype, “The Machine,” is scheduled for testing by 2016. As of right now, it is known that IBM is working on a similar system.
Truly, we live in interesting times…