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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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A Circuit to Boost Battery Life

Digital low-dropout voltage regulators will save time, money, and power

11 min read
Image of a battery held sideways by pliers on each side.
Edmon de Haro

YOU'VE PROBABLY PLAYED hundreds, maybe thousands, of videos on your smartphone. But have you ever thought about what happens when you press “play”?

The instant you touch that little triangle, many things happen at once. In microseconds, idle compute cores on your phone's processor spring to life. As they do so, their voltages and clock frequencies shoot up to ensure that the video decompresses and displays without delay. Meanwhile, other cores, running tasks in the background, throttle down. Charge surges into the active cores' millions of transistors and slows to a trickle in the newly idled ones.

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