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Summary:

Let go of your transistors. A physicist from SLAC who spoke at SXSW interactive has proposed using the state changes in the orbits of electrons as a way to build faster computers.

SLAC Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument at LCLS. Photo by Signe Brewster/Gigaom
photo: Signe Brewster/Gigaom

The demand for computing power is constantly rising, but we’re heading to the edge of the cliff in terms of increasing performance — both in terms of the physics of cramming more transistors on a chip and in terms of the power consumption. We’ve covered plenty of different ways that researchers are trying to continue advancing Moore’s Law — this idea that the number of transistors (and thus the performance) on a chip doubles every 18 months — especially the far out there efforts that take traditional computer science and electronics and dump them in favor of using magnetic spin, quantum states or probabilistic logic.

We’re going to add a new impossible that might become possible to that list thanks to Joshua Turner, a physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, who has proposed using the orbits of electrons around the nucleus of an atom as a new means to generate the binary states (the charge or lack of a charge that transistors use today to generate zeros and ones) we use in computing. He calls this idea orbital computing and the big takeaway for engineers is that one can switch the state of an electron’s orbit 10,000 times faster than you can switch the state of a transistor used in computing today.

That means you can still have the features of computing in that you use binary programming, but you just can compute more in less time. To get us to his grand theory, Turner had to take the SXSW audience through how computing works, how transistors work, the structure of atoms, the behavior of subatomic particles and a bunch of background on X-rays.

SLAC Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray laser. Photo by Signe Brewster/Gigaom

SLAC Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray laser. Photo by Signe Brewster/Gigaom

X-rays are actually his specialty at SLAC, where he oversees experiments in the Linear accelerator to take pictures of subatomic particles in action. Those experiments have also led to the discovery of new materials and visualizations that could help computing in the nearer term. One is the discovery of a material that allows electrons to switch states really quickly that could improve magnetic random access memory speeds by a factor of thousand.

Another breakthrough is the ability to see what spin (positive or negative) electrons in a magnetic field have taken — which is akin to seeing what’s happening inside a transistor while it’s working. This helps engineers take the guesswork out of what some of the new breakthroughs in chip research might mean in the real world. One of the problems with working at the subatomic layer is that you can’t see what you are doing without expensive equipment.

A third breakthrough is the use of a lower-power terahertz laser to prompt a shift in the state of a magnetic spin of electrons. Like both the new material and the concept of orbital computing, this is a way to switch the state of an electron faster. The primary advantage here is that while we’ve known for a while that a laser can speed up a state change (and thus, speed up computing) those lasers require a lot of power. The terahertz breakthrough offers a boost in speed without requiring a huge power draw.

While the talk was highly technical, it was also engaging and Turner imbued it with a sense of wonder. He ended by reminding us that even as we’re toting small computers in our pockets or commercializing quantum computers, there is so much we don’t know about getting more performance and more insights out of computers. So while there’s a renewed interest in space as the “final frontier,” he argued that there is as much wonder to be had at the smaller scale.

“The frontier is really all around us,” he said. “There is so much we don’t understand and there are tons of experiments that we can use to get at the fundamental nature of quantum mechanics.”

  1. Was the talk recorded? I’d like to see the video.

    I imagine the orbitals can hold more data than just a 0 or 1. Jump multiple levels, multiple spins. Hopefully we’ll be able to go from true/false to a floating point value.

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    1. Holding intermediate states isn’t as useful as you would think. The digital (binary) abstraction is useful because it is very resilient to noise. With every additional state you add you increase the risk of reading the wrong value.

      A possibly more useful prospect is quantum computing and quantum annealing hardware.

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    2. not yesterday’s, but there’s this, which might be similar

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    3. The video posted below is a a year old, but the orbital computing stuff is pretty much the same. After the talk, I asked Turner about moving beyond binary programming because you could capture more than just two states given the different permutations of orbital spin. He said it would be possible, but then you are talking about programming for five or more different states. That’s a daunting and awesome proposition.

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      1. John Haugeland Wednesday, March 12, 2014

        “but then you are talking about programming for five or more different states. That’s a daunting and awesome proposition.”

        Until you realize it’s actually exactly the same, and also how SSDs already work.

        “Yeah but they just use those SSDs to do binary math!” Yeah, and then they use that binary math to do base ten math, because they’re all the same thing.

        Base-5 computing differs from Base-2 computing in no way that will affect a typical programmer.

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        1. I agree, it could affect only low-level programming. Like J Irwin said, the real problem of adding more states is that with every new state you increase the probability of failure. There are always fluctuations (in voltage for example), If 1V represents 0 value and 5V represents 1, sometimes the voltage will drop to 4V and you’ll read that (correctly) as 1, but if you now introduce a new state, like 3V representing the value of 2, now there’s 50% chance you’d be wrong interpreting those 4V as 1.

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    4. I know the audio was recorded so if i can get anything from the SXSW team I will add it to this story.

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  2. And I propose new type of computing using changes in atom nucleus with gamma radiation.

    Check mate!

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