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Soggy Computing: Liquid Devices Might Match the Brain's Efficiency

Vanadium dioxide switches could be great for a new kind of computing, but maybe they're just too strange

3 min read
Soggy Computing: Liquid Devices Might Match the Brain's Efficiency
Wetware: A gate electrode, coupled with a droplet of ionic liquid, controls a switch made from vanadium dioxide. The channel of the device is 200 micrometers long.
Image: Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics

Stuart Parkin has a vision for the future of computing. Gone are the motherboards, the individual memory chips, the billions of speedy transistors. In their place is something strange: a brain-inspired box full of liquid-driven circuitry that swells and shrinks, with a clock speed that would make even a 40-year-old microprocessor look blazingly fast.

“The mantra [has been] ‘Go smaller, go faster,’ and I think the mantra is wrong,” says Parkin, a longtime IBM researcher who is now director of the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics, in Halle, Germany. “It turns out it costs a lot of energy to go faster,” Parkin adds. By slowing down to more brainlike speeds, on the order of tens of hertz, he says, future computers—with likely very different architectures—might be able to accomplish a lot with very little energy.

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The Transistor at 75

The past, present, and future of the modern world’s most important invention

1 min read
A photo of a birthday cake with 75 written on it.
Lisa Sheehan
LightGreen

Seventy-five years is a long time. It’s so long that most of us don’t remember a time before the transistor, and long enough for many engineers to have devoted entire careers to its use and development. In honor of this most important of technological achievements, this issue’s package of articles explores the transistor’s historical journey and potential future.

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