The Future is Here: Carbon Nanotube Computers

carbon-nanotubeSilicon Valley is undergoing a major shift, one which may require it to rethink its name. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of a team based at Stanford that is seeking to create the first basic computer built around carbon nanotubes rather than silicon chips. In addition to changing how computers are built, this is likely to extend the efficiency and performance.

What’s more, this change may deal a serious blow to the law of computing known as Moore’s Law. For decades now, the exponential acceleration of technology – which has taken us from room-size computers run by punched paper cards to handheld devices with far more computing power – has depended the ability to place more and more transistors onto an individual chip.

PPTMooresLawaiThe result of this ongoing trend in miniaturization has been devices that are becoming smaller, more powerful, and cheaper. The law used to describe this – though “basic rule” would be a more apt description – states that the number of transistors on a chip has been doubling every 18 months or so since the dawn of the information age. This is what is known as “Moore’s Law.”

However, this trend could be coming to an end, mainly because its becoming increasingly difficult, expensive and inefficient to keep jamming more tiny transistors on a chip. In addition, there are the inevitable physical limitations involved, as miniaturization can only go on for so long before its becomes unfeasible.

carbon_nanotubecomputerCarbon nanotubes, which are long chains of carbon atoms thousands of times thinner than a human hair, have the potential to be more energy-efficient and outperform computers made with silicon components. Using a technique that involved “burning” off and weeding out imperfections with an algorithm from the nanotube matrix, the team built a very basic computer with 178 transistors that can do tasks like counting and number sorting.

In a recent release from the university, Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra said:

People have been talking about a new era of carbon nanotube electronics moving beyond silicon. But there have been few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof.

Naturally, this computer is more of a proof of concept than a working prototype. There are still a number of problems with the idea, such as the fact that nanotubes don’t always grow in straight lines and cannot always “switch off” like a regular transistor. The Stanford team’s computer’s also has limited power due to the limited facilities they had to work with, which did not have access to industrial fabrication tools.

carbon_nanotube2All told, their computer is only about as powerful as an Intel 4004, the first single-chip silicon microprocessor that was released in 1971. But given time, we can expect more sophisticated designs to emerge, especially if design teams have access to top of the line facilities to build prototypes.

And this research team is hardly alone in this regard. Last year, Silicon Valley giant IBM managed to create their own transistors using carbon nanotubes and also found that they outperformed the transistors made of silicon. What’s more, these transistors measured less than ten nanometers across, and were able to operated using very low voltage.

carbon_nanotube_transistorSimilarly, a research team from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois managed to create something very similar. In their case, this consisted of a logic gate – the fundamental circuit that all integrated circuits are based on – using carbon nanotubes to create transistors that operate in a CMOS-like architecture. And much like IBM and the Standford team’s transistors, it functioned at very low power levels.

What this demonstrated is that carbon nanotube transistors and other computer components are not only feasible, but are able to outperform transistors many times their size while using a fraction of the power. Hence, it is probably only a matter of time before a fully-functional computer is built – using carbon nanotube components – that will supersede silicon systems and throw Moore’s Law out the window.

Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), fastcolabs.com

Judgement Day Update: The Human Brain Project

brain_chip2Biomimetics are one of the fastest growing areas of technology today, which seek to develop technology that is capable of imitating biology. The purpose of this, in addition to creating machinery that can be merged with our physiology, is to arrive at a computing architecture that is as complex and sophisticated as the human brain.

While this might sound the slightest bit anthropocentric, it is important to remember that despite their processing power, supercomputers like the D-Wave Two, IBM’s Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, or MIT’s ConceptNet 4, have all shown themselves to be lacking when it comes to common sense and abstract reasoning. Simply pouring raw computing power into the mix does not make for autonomous intelligence.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAs a result of this, new steps are being taken to crate a computer that can mimic the very organ that gives humanity these abilities – the human brain. In what is surely the most ambitious step towards this goal to date, an international group of researchers recently announced the formation of the Human Brain Project. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This will involve mapping out the vast network known as the human brain – a network composed of over a hundred billion neuronal connections that are the source of emotions, abstract thought, and this thing we know as consciousness. And to do so, the researchers will be using a progressively scaled-up multilayered simulation running on a supercomputer.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTConcordant with this bold plan, the team itself is made up of over 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions from around the world. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, this initiative is being put forth by the European Commission, and has even been compared to the Large Hadron Collider in terms of scope and ambition. In fact, some have taken to calling it the “Cern for the brain.”

According to scientists working on the project, the HBP will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into the overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimick the functions of the human brain.

^According to a statement released by the HBP, Swedish Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel had this to say about the project:

The support of the HBP is a critical step taken by the EC to make possible major advances in our understanding of how the brain works. HBP will be a driving force to develop new and still more powerful computers to handle the massive accumulation of new information about the brain, while the neuroscientists are ready to use these new tools in their laboratories. This cooperation should lead to new concepts and a deeper understanding of the brain, the most complex and intricate creation on earth.

Other distinguished individuals who were quoted in the release include President Shimon Peres of Israel, Paul G. Allen, the founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science; Patrick Aebischer, the President of EPFL in Switzerland; Harald Kainz, Rector of Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria; as well as a slew of other politicians and academics.

Combined with other research institutions that are producing computer chips and processors that are modelled on the human brain, and our growing understanding of the human connectome, I think it would be safe to say that by the time the HBP wraps up, we are likely to see processors that are capable of demonstrating intelligence, not just in terms of processing speed and memory, but in terms of basic reasoning as well.

At that point, we really out to consider instituting Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics! Otherwise, things could get apocalyptic on our asses! 😉


Sources:
io9.com, humanbrainproject.eu
, documents.epfl.ch