Yesterday Hewlett-Packard (HP), best known as a leading personal computer manufacturer, announced what may be one of the most significant electronics breakthroughs of the decade. Researchers at HP Labs, the central research center for the company, confirmed the existence of the previously theorized fourth fundamental circuit element of electrical engineering.
The new component is called the “memristor” -- a word blend of "memory" and "resistor". The physical working model and the mathematical model of the component were presented side by side in a paper in the journal Nature, yesterday. Four researchers at the lab, led by R. Stanley Williams, presented the device which retains the history of information passed to it.
The device could make for computers that need no boot-up, never forget, use less power, and associate memories much like the human mind. Such possibilities were long considered the realm of science fiction. The realization of the device was 37 years in the making, and many had come to think it would never be created.
The component was initially theorized and named by Leon Chua, a distinguished faculty member in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department of the University of California at Berkeley, in 1971. Chua's paper argued that the new component was a fundamental fourth element of electronics with unique properties which the other elements did not have.
By leveraging experience in nanoelectronics, Williams was finally able to realize Chua's creation, over three decades later. Williams was ecstatic about the success. He stated, "To find something new and yet so fundamental in the mature field of electrical engineering is a big surprise, and one that has significant implications for the future of computer science. By providing a mathematical model for the physics of a memristor, HP Labs has made it possible for engineers to develop integrated circuit designs that could dramatically improve the performance and energy efficiency of PCs and data centers."
The device could eventually make dynamic random access memory (DRAM) obsolete. In current systems, active computers store data in DRAM, but must shuffle the information to and from a magnetic hard disk or a flash drive, nonvolatile forms of memory. Furthermore, when the computer is turned on, the DRAM must be initially loaded from the magnetic memory. These processes consume both time and energy, slowing computing and raising the energy and heat envelopes of systems.
A memristor would need no boot up as its data would be exactly how it was previously left. Data could theoretically be read and wrote directly to and from memristors, eliminating the need for hard drives, except possibly for backup storage.
With the advent of “cloud computing” -- the transition of data storage to the online world this device becomes even more valuable and timely. The IT infrastructure that's growing to support cloud computing uses thousands of systems, multiplying the energy costs of ram usage exponentially. The new component could dramatically reduce the power, and thus the expense of such systems, as well as helping to protect user data and reducing load times.
One key problem to data centers has always been the possibility of a power loss. The memristor essentially would take away the problem, as barring complete circuit destruction; the data would survive a power outage. The type of memory also offers the possibility of continuously learning and adapting systems, similar to the human brain. Such systems could be used in facial recognition technology, as well as in enabling advanced biometric security and privacy features.
Williams is no stranger to innovation -- he founded HP Labs’ Information and Quantum Systems Lab and has been its director ever since. The lab strives to develop advances in the realms of mathematics and physical science useful to computing. The lab has logged many advances in nanoelectronics and nanophotonics, but the memristor may well go down in history as its most significant contribution.