An Era of Silicon-Free Computing

An Era of Silicon-Free Computing

New computing technologies are being explored as silicon-based chips approach the limits of scalability

Computing is onetechnology that civilization can no longer do without. As long as humans will be there on this planet, computing is going to be a part of our lives. It has enriched our lives in innumerable ways, and significantly influenced the future. However, as computing requirements have become more and more complex, higher and even higher processing capacities have been in demand. As a result, newer computing technologies are being explored to replace silicon-based chips – which seem to have approached the upper limits of Moore’s Law.

Against this backdrop, Dan Wellers, the Futures and Foresight Lead at SAP Insights Research Center – the innovation arm of world’s leading enterprise resource planning software vendor SAP – has written a blog article on the company’s website. Co-authored with business and technology writer Fawn Fitter, the article describes six pathbreaking innovations that are going to reshape the future of computing. These are:

  • Graphene nanotubes
  • DNA data storage
  • Neuromorphic technology
  • Optical computing
  • Distributed computing
  • Quantum computing

Of the six, distributed computing and Quantum computing have gained more publicity than the others. Most people acquaintedwith new-age technology are aware of at least the basic concepts of these two. Work has progressed quite a bit on Quantum and distributed technology, and any progress keeps hitting the news at regular intervals. But the other four are frontier technologies that are little knows as yet –but holds great promise to transcend the limits of silicon.

Let’s cast a quick glanceover the innovations as described by Wellers and Fitter in their article.

Graphene nanotubes

Graphene is a super-material that is one carbon-atom thick and more conductive than any other known material. It can be rolled up into tiny tubes (nanotubes).Combining graphene with other 2D materials can make it an even more efficient superconductor –conducting electrons faster, in less space, and using less energy – compared to the smallest silicon transistor.

DNA data storage

This involves converting any data to a base of 4 which allows it to be encoded it on synthetic DNA – exactly following the pattern in which genetic information is coded into our genome. As the authors describe: “We already know how to sequence (read), synthesize (write to), and copy DNA. A little bit of it stores a whole lot of information; some researchers believe we could meet the world’s entire data storage needs for a year with a cubic meter of powdered e. coli DNA. And it’s remarkably stable…”The article predicts that we may be just a few years away fromDNA-based data storage as a service.

Neuromorphic technology

This technology aims at developing a computing system that attempts to solve problemsbymimicking the neural architecture of the human brain.If perfected, this can achieve human levels of problem solving – and perhaps even cognition at a future refined stage!The authors describe two milestones: (1) in early 2020, Intel claimed developing a server with neuromorphic chips that equalled the neural capacity of a small mammal’s brain; and (2) “an international team of researchers has linked artificial and biological neurons to communicate like a biological nervous system but one that uses internet protocols.”

Optical computing

This is computing at the speed of light – literally!It uses photonsby mapping data onto light-intensity levels and then varying the light intensity to perform calculations. The authors are of the opinion that optical computing“is still in its earliest stages but could enable high-efficiency, low-power processing and data transmission.”

Distributed computing

Thiscomputing model is already being leveraged to find cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, andCOVID-19. With nearly 750,000 participants and a collective 1.5 exaflops of power (a quintillion calculations per second) it is proving to be extremely efficient. The beauty of the system is it uses any personal computer, located anywhere in the world, andwith some computing bandwidth to spare – like when in idle/sleep modes or while running below maximum computing capacity! Quite a sustainable technology indeed!

Quantum computing

Quantum computinguses Quantum bits (qubits), which follows Quantum logic. Hence the value of a qubit can be zero, one, both zero and one, or anything in between – and all at the same time. This immediately transcends the limitations of binary logic. Although current quantum systems are not very stable, Wellers and Fitter predict that “in the next 10 or 20 years they’ll be able to help us design new materials and chemical compounds and create unhackable channels of communication….”

The authors conclude that “We may be approaching the limits of what silicon chips can do, but technology itself is still accelerating. It’s unlikely to stop being the driving force in modern life.”

Acknowledgement:6 Surprising Innovations for the Future of Computing | SAP Insights

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