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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.
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.”