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Nonvolatile Memories


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When Professor Leon Chua was on his way to his first prom in junior high school, he found that a corsage was out of his price range, so instead he tied a bright ribbon into a bow and gave it to his date. Sixty years later, they are still married, and he is trying to rethink how people can hold onto memories like this one by laying the groundwork for a new kind of nonvolatile memory storage.


We may think our current methods of data storage are permanent, but the reality is that much of it will be decayed or unreadable within a few decades. Modern computing relies heavily on flash, which actually loses about 10 percent of its contents every 10 years. For example, if you save 1,000 pictures on a flash drive they may be safe in one year, but 20 years later, you may find that only 800 are still viewable.


The chips Chua envisions will be able to hold data for hundreds of millions of years, instead of a few short decades. “Like diamonds, it’s forever,” says Chua.


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Chua’s research attempts to predict how we can safely and efficiently improve our data storage capabilities . He believes that in the future, computer chips will function more like the human brain. They will also break the traditional binary model and represent an infinite range of values, instead of just ones and zeroes.


Chua noted there is an emotional connections between human memories and data storage. When he discovered a plot shaped like a bow, he named it after a “corsage,” because it reminded him of the ribbon he gave his wife.


Despite the quantitative nature of his research, Chua credits Marcel Proust for inspiring his reimagining of memory storage. Proust’s epic novel, In Search of Lost Time, is a meditation on the nature of human memory. Chua credits Proust for identifying the strong associative aspects of memory long before classical conditioning was scientifically demonstrated by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov.


Chua sometimes ends his lecture with a message written in hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt, a reminder of a completely different era of human information codification. The message, readable only by experts, reminds us that the modern struggle to scale down computer chips to smaller and smaller proportions is all part of the same continuum of recording what it means to be human.


If we can’t understand hieroglyphs today, how can we know that people in the future will be able to read and understand data stored in a flash drive? All we can do is try to make data storage as clear and functional as possible so memories, like Mrs. Chua and her ribbon corsage, can live on.


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. You can watch a replay on HP on Demand.

Don’t miss his next lecture on Tuesday, October 13 at 10:30 am – 12 pm PT on Cellular Networks.


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About the Author



Leon Chua's use of a hieroglyphic message to underscore the cultural relativity of information codification begs the question as to in how far the course we've embarked on - that is, the ever greater reduction of information components - is one toward cultural specificity or toward universality. Formulated otherwise, for how long and how far throughout the universe would the association between Mrs. Chua's ribbon and its encoding retain its semantic integrity?

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