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The Italian Computer: Olivetti’s ELEA 9003 Was a Study in Elegant, Ergonomic Design

In 1959, Olivetti introduced one of the first transistorized mainframes and started its own transistor company

11 min read
illustration of Adriano Olivetti and Mario Tchou.
Digital Future: In the 1950s, Adriano Olivetti (left), the head of Italy’s Olivetti Co., decided that computers were the company’s future, and he hired Mario Tchou (right), a brilliant electrical engineer, to oversee what became the ELEA 9003.
Illustration: Ciaj Rocchi and Matteo Demonte (courtesy of La Lettura/Il Corriere della Sera)

“I have made my decision: We are going to scrap the first version of our computer, and we will start again from scratch." It's the autumn of 1957, and Mario Tchou, a brilliant young Chinese-Italian electrical engineer, is speaking to his team at the Olivetti Electronics Research Laboratory. Housed in a repurposed villa on the outskirts of Pisa, not far from the Leaning Tower, the lab is filled with vacuum tubes, wires, cables, and other electronics, a startling contrast to the tasteful decorations of the palatial rooms.

On any weekday, some 20 or so physicists, technicians, and engineers would be hard at work there, designing, developing, soldering, conferring. In less than two years—half the time they'd been allotted—they've completed their first prototype mainframe, called Macchina Zero (Zero Machine). No other company in Italy has ever built a computer before. They're understandably proud.

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Artificial Synapses 10,000x Faster Than Real Thing

New protonic programmable resistors may help speed learning in deep neural networks

3 min read
Conceptual illustration shows a brain shape made of circuits on a multilayered chip structure.
Ella Maru Studio and Murat Onen

New artificial versions of the neurons and synapses in the human brain are up to 1,000 times smaller than neurons and at least 10,000 times faster than biological synapses, a study now finds.

These new devices may help improve the speed at which the increasingly common and powerful artificial intelligence systems known as deep neural networks learn, researchers say.

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Amazon to Acquire iRobot F​or $1.7 Billion

The deal will give the e-retail behemoth even more access to our homes

4 min read
A photo of an iRobot Roomba with an Amazon logo digitally added to it
Photo-illustration: iStockphoto/Amazon/IEEE Spectrum

This morning, Amazon and iRobot announced “a definitive merger agreement under which Amazon will acquire iRobot” for US $1.7 billion. The announcement was a surprise, to put it mildly, and we’ve barely had a chance to digest the news. But taking a look at what’s already known can still yield initial (if incomplete) answers as to why Amazon and iRobot want to team up—and whether the merger seems like a good idea.

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