New research from HP Labs could change the way computer systems are designed while better equipping them to process the current information explosion.
HP Labs researchers have discovered that the "memristor" – a resistor with memory that represents the fourth basic circuit element in electrical engineering – has more capabilities than was previously thought. In addition to being useful in storage devices, the memristor can perform logic, enabling computation to one day be performed in chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialised CPU.
The latest findings about the memristor are detailed in a paper published this week in the journal "Nature" by six researchers at HP's Information and Quantum Systems Lab, led by R Stanley Williams. These developments follow the HP Labs team's first demonstration of the existence of the memristor in 2008.
HP has created development-ready architectures for memory chips using memristors and believes it is possible that devices incorporating the element could come to market within the next few years.
HP researchers also have designed a new architecture within which multiple layers of memristor memory can be stacked on top of each other in a single chip. In five years, such chips could be used to create handheld devices that offer ten times greater embedded memory than exists today or to power supercomputers that allow work like movie rendering and genomic research to be done dramatically faster than Moore's Law suggests is possible.
Eventually, memristor-based processors might replace the silicon in the smart display screens found in e-readers and could one day even become the successors to silicon on a larger scale.
Memristors require less energy to operate and are faster than present solid-state storage technologies such as flash memory, and they can store at least twice as much data in the same area.
They are virtually immune from radiation, which can disrupt transistor-based technologies – making them an attractive way to enable ever smaller but ever more powerful devices. And, because they do not "forget", memristors can enable computers that turn on and off like a light switch.
"Memristive devices could change the standard paradigm of computing by enabling calculations to be performed in the chips where data is stored rather than in a specialised central processing unit," says R. Stanley Williams, senior fellow and director: Information and Quantum Systems Lab at HP. "Thus, we anticipate the ability to make more compact and power-efficient computing systems well into the future, even after it is no longer possible to make transistors smaller via the traditional Moore's Law approach."
Dr Leon Chua, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences Department at the University of California in Berkeley, adds: "Since our brains are made of memristors, the flood gate is now open for commercialisation of computers that would compute like human brains, which is totally different from the von Neumann architecture underpinning all digital computers."