IBM vision for computer of the future

31 October 2013
Posted by Chris Smith.

International computer giant IBM has unveiled its vision for a "supercomputer in a sugarcube" BBC Micro computerpowered by "electronic blood".

The aim is to base the design on the workings of the human brain in order to surmount some of the difficulties - delivering power and removing the excess heat - that computer engineers are currently encountering as they seek to make chips smaller and faster.

The heat problem effectively doubles the running cost of a computer, because nearly as much energy has to be spent on cooling as on computing.

Current figures suggest that just running the Internet accounts annually - in energy terms - for an equivalent amount of CO2 as the airline industry, and computing generally equates to a global spend of over $30 billion just making hot air.

But, to make processors more compact and run even faster, chips will need to shrink, partly to reduce the distances - and hence time - over which information needs to be transmitted and to pack in more processing power. Doing so, though, will intensify the present problems.

So IBM have turned to the human brain for inspiration because, despite consuming energy at the rate of only about 20 watts, the brain is, according to IBM researchers Patrick Ruch and Bruno Michel, "10,000 more dense and efficient than any computer around today."

This they put down to the fact that the brain solves several problems in one: the 3D structure of the brain makes it highly compact, and it uses a highly efficient circulatory (blood) system to deliver energy and keep the operating environment right for optimal performance of the components.

According to Michel, the brain uses "40% of its volume for function and 10% for energy and cooling." The best current computers, on the other hand, devote only about 1% to processing!

Instead, Michel and Ruch propose to pile up processors like the chip equivalent of a skyscraper to boost computing power; then, they'll keep them cool by circulating a fluid - "electronic blood" - through special channels within the chips to soak up heat; and - here's the really clever bit - they'll also use the same fluid to power the chips using a chemical reaction.

Analogous to blood delivering sugar to hungry neurones, the approach being explored at IBM is to use a solution of a chemical like vanadium that can be "charged" before it is pumped into the computer.

Then, as it passes over the processor components, the vanadium alters its chemical oxidation state, releasing electrons to the transistors to power them.

The ultimate goal is to cram a super-computer that currently occupies half a football pitch into a volume the size of a sugarcube by 2060.

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