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How a new kind of chip could change computer architecture forever, according to Professor Leon Chua

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Professor Leon Chua, an award-winning scholar in the field of electrical engineering, kicked off his 12- part lecture series at HP this week. Over the next three months, the series— From Memristors and Cellular Nonlinear Networks to the Edge of Chaos—will look at his revolutionary research that is driving, among other things, the future of computer memory.

 

You can watch a replay here, but here’s a quick summary of the first lecture which served as an appetizer for the entire series, introducing all the professor’s discoveries that will be explored as the entire series unfolds:

 

Since computers were invented, they have virtually all stored their working state in memory which is volatile, that is, when the machine loses power, the information is lost. In 1971, Chua’s research predicted a missing type of fundamental electronic component that would remember what happened to it before it was turned off. He called this chip a Memristor, a portmanteau of memory and resistor. Since 2008, HP Labs has been turning Chua’s theory into physical prototypes of a new type of memory chip, but the technology is still very new.

 

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What can Memristors do?

Memristors can be made very small, enabling tremendous memory capacity in a very small space. In fact, Memristors can be made smaller than any known virus. According to Chua, the nonvolatile memory on a Memristor could potentially store the entire Library of Congress—that is, 21 million books or 10 terabytes of data— on just one chip.

 

Memristors can be used for more than just memory: they can also perform actual computation, using fewer components and less energy than other kinds of chips. For example, a standard logic block called a “adder” can be made using just 10 Memristors instead of 50 transistors. According to Chua, Memristors could extend Moore’s law because they exhibit nonlinearity and can be scaled down to sub-nanometer size.

 

“A Memristor is more than just memory. It has intelligence,” Chua said. Memristors can be made to function in a way that is comparable to the human brain, where neurons that aren’t immediately in a sequence can still retrieve information from each other.

Believe it or not, you can even make micro machines using Memristors. The professor showed how researchers had created a tiny but powerful catapult just 50 microns in length that, if increased in scale, could be used to propel a jet engine.

 

Beyond Memristors

Professor Chua’s research doesn’t stop at Memristors. He also touched on two more remarkable inventions – Cellular Neural Networks and The Edge of Chaos – which will be covered in depth in later lectures. Cellular neural networks are capable of mimicking many fascinating brain functions, in principle hundreds of times faster than conventional computers can manage. The Edge of Chaos is the missing principle that many luminaries have sought in vain as the foundation of complexity theory and may explain how life itself can exist.

 

Be sure to mark your calendars and register for the whole series. It’s going to be quite a ride!

 

About the Lecture Series

Professor Chua’s lecture is part of a 12-part lecture series taking place at HP’s headquarters at 3000 Hanover Street, Building 20 - Auditorium, Palo Alto, CA, 94304.  Join us in person or on the web next Tuesday, September 15 for Chua’s second lecture which will cover “Everything You Wish to Know About Memristors but are Afraid to Ask”.

 

To find more information on the lecture series and to sign up for his upcoming lectures on Memristors, the cellular nonlinear network, and the “edge of chaos,” visit The Chua Lectures: 12 Part Series with HP Labs event page.

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