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U.S. research lab focuses on building computers of the future

Sharon Gaudin | June 2, 2014
Computer scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have launched an effort to develop whole new types of computers that will be used 10, 25 or even 50 years from now.

"Yes, we're definitely at a point where we could use some breakthroughs," said Olds. "I believe that we'll reach the point of diminishing returns from 'shrinks' at about the 9nm to 10nm process level. This means in the absence of a technological breakthrough, we'll need to improve other parts of the computing process to keep us on the same price/performance curve as Moore's Law."

One of the new forms of computing that scientists at Sandia are working on is a system that works more like a brain than a conventional computer.

A brain-inspired computer is expected to be able to tackle real-world situations in real-time, while also being able to run on the same power as a 20-watt light bulb.

The only "machine" that can handle those functions is the human brain. Sandia researchers are hoping to change that.

"Today's computers are wonderful at bookkeeping and solving scientific problems often described by partial differential equations, but they're horrible at just using common sense, seeing new patterns, dealing with ambiguity and making smart decisions," said John Wagner, cognitive sciences manager at Sandia, in a recent statement.

Sandia also is working on quantum computing, which has become something of a lightning rod in the high-tech industry.

Quantum computing, which is based on the tenants of quantum physics, is not only the holy grail of supercomputing, but it's also so complicated that it's tough for even computer scientists, as well as physicists, to understand.

Many believe these computers will be able to surpass the top classic supercomputers in some calculations, especially problems that require searching through huge amounts of data, or finding answers to questions so complex that machines like IBM's Blue Gene and Cray's supercomputing systems might need hundreds of years to solve them, or might never solve them at all.

While many in the industry say it will take as long 50 years to seeing a real quantum machine, D-Wave, a quantum computing company based in Burnaby, British Columbia, said it is building them. D-Wave has sold the computers to Google and NASA.

DeBenedictis declined to get into the state of quantum computing today but said it's important to continue research into new areas of computing to handle the changing and growing ecosystem of applications that will be used.

"The computers we have today are good at numerical calculations," he said. "But think about how we use them today. We use Google and social media and we watch videos and process text. There's an evolution happening in the applications we need our computers to handle. I would say [future computer platforms] will be better suited to the way we want to use computers tomorrow."

 

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