A Radical Computer Revolution Coming Soon: The Machine, From HP

Journalist:
December 10, 2014
Closeup of HP Memristor devices on a 300mm wafer.

New computers are announced every week, but it’s been sixty years since we have seen a fundamental change in our computing paradigm. Hewlett Packard intends to do just that in 2015 with The Machine, a system based on memristors rather than transistors.

Your current computer has gigabytes of transistor based dynamic RAM and twenty to sixty times as much long term storage in the form of a spinning disk. Maybe you were in a hurry, and your system has a solid state disk, but from the system’s perspective the SSD is handled just like a traditional hard disk. HP means to erase the difference between working memory, long term storage, and processing power, which means rethinking everything.

Capacity Improvements

Dynamic RAM and flash both store bits which are either on or off. Hard disks use magnetic surfaces, but they interpret what is written as an on/off switch as well. The first memristors will be handled just like disk surface, but they can express much more information than just two states. As memristor based architecture evolves, we’ll see smaller, cooler devices, or the same principles will be applied to wring tremendous performance gains out of the same amount of silicon and power we use now.

One of the barriers to new system acceptance is the lack of software. HP is ducking this by offering the initial systems with what it is calling Linux++, providing early adopters with a familiar, feature rich environment. Even if devices fail to take advantage of unique memristor features, simply pumping up production volume by taking over the RAM and flash markets means reduced unit cost, leading to more R&D money.

The first effects for cryptocoins beyond the steady progress in increased performance will likely be a breakdown of the dividing line between computation intensive hashes like SHA256 and memory intensive ones like Scrypt. When memory densities go up by an order of magnitude specialty chips can pack much more storage in the same footprint, and the parameters of what qualifies as an ASIC resistant hash may change.

Paradigm Change

The Machine will ship with Linux++, but the long term plan is an operating system created from the ground up with memristors in mind, which they are calling Carbon. HP offers this lofty assessment:

“We’re pushing the boundaries of the physics behind IT, using electrons for computation, photons for communication, and ions for storage.”

Our current computers all suffer from the Von Neumann Bottleneck. Your current processor has a few megabytes of cache that helps alleviate the transfer time to and from main memory. Your current operating system has a buffer pool, a portion of main memory where contents from your file storage are held when being accessed. Replacing transistors with memristors turns this whole model on its head, because where and how processing occurs can be dramatically different than the current centralized computation engines we’re accustom to having.

Rather than one central chip with a handful of extremely fast cores and remote storage on the bus, imagine purchasing flexible compute fabric in a form similar to today’s RAM. Each stick would offer an array of storage and processing capability. The processing power could be anything from a general purpose CPU to an ASIC, or even an FPGA that could be reprogrammed by the operating system as needed.

The memristor is a fundamentally analog device, which makes it a natural fit for neural network processing. There are neural network packages for general purpose computers and specialty hardware for very large capacity projects, but we’ve never had this as a cheap, plentiful resource. And that fact suddenly makes all of the industry chatter about artificial intelligence and distributed autonomous organizations MUCH more interesting.

The Machine would be a wonder if all it delivered were running Linux++ at ten times the speed on a small fraction of the power we use today. Combining the hardware with Carbon, software specifically created for the architecture, is going to do so much more than that.

What do you think of Hewlett Packard’s project to rethink computing? Comment below!

Images from Hewlett Packard, Ken Wolter and Shutterstock.

Neal Rauhauser @RealityForger

Cryptocurrencies, cipherspace, and contagions, both of markets and society, are what capture my attention.