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The Era of Error-Tolerant Computing

Errors will abound in future processors...and that's okay

3 min read

The computer's perfectionist streak is coming to an end. Speaking at the International Symposium on Low Power electronics and Design, experts said power consumption concerns are driving computing toward a design philosophy in which errors are either allowed to happen and ignored, or corrected only where necessary. Probabilistic outcomes will replace the deterministic form of data processing that has prevailed for the last half century.

Naresh Shanbhag, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, refers to error-resilient computing (also called probabilistic computing) by the more formal name of stochastic processing. Whatever the name, the approach, Shanbhag says, is not to automatically circle back and correct errors once they are identified, because that consumes power. "If the application is such that small errors can be tolerated, we let them happen," he says. "Depending on the application, we keep error rates under a threshold, using algorithmic or circuit techniques." For many applications such as graphics processing or drawing inferences from huge amounts of data, errors in reasonable numbers do not materially impact the quality of the results. After all, your eye wouldn't even notice the presence of a single bad pixel in most images.

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The Transistor at 75

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

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

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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