The silicon transistor is one of the most fundamental inventions in human history, birthing the Information Age and transforming the lives of billions of humans in just a few decades. But the exponential improvements in computing performance predicted by Moore’s Law have begun to falter as the technology hits fundamental physical limits. This has sparked renewed interest in alternative computing technologies that could provide workarounds to these constraints.
In part, this has been driven by a growing appreciation that information processing is a fundamental part of many natural processes, and that clever engineering can help harness these processes for our own use. Efforts to exploit the unique behaviour of quantum systems – covered elsewhere in the Radar – have achieved the most attention and investment. But a host of other unconventional approaches to computing show promise.
The unique capabilities of the human brain have drawn considerable attention, for example. Today’s AI software is already loosely inspired by the way neurons work, but neuromorphic engineers are attempting to go a step further and reproduce its physical architecture in hardware. Others are investigating whether small conglomerations of brain cells known as organoids can be coaxed into solving computational tasks.
Even simpler biological processes may hold enormous computing potential. DNA’s ability to encode, transform and replicate information holds clear parallels to the binary code at the heart of classical computers, and raises the possibility of controlling more complex cellular and intercellular processes that could enable us to go beyond conventional circuit-based computing paradigms.
The prospect of encoding computations in light rather than electricity is also showing significant promise. The approach could offer substantial speed-ups on a variety of problems, including AI, and commercialisation is already well underway.
Selection of GESDA best reads and key reports
In February 2023, an international team published a report entitled Organoid Intelligence: the new frontier in biocomputing and intelligence-in-a-dish, offering an overview of the field and suggestions for strategic development and an ethics-centred approach. A collaboration from Jordan, Pakistan and UAE laid out the promise and challenges of cellular computing in Research Challenges and Future Facet of Cellular Computing a few months later, emphasising its potential in medicine, bioengineering and environmental monitoring. In July, US researchers published Solving the big computing problems in the twenty-first century, which explored the potential for new computing efforts to assist with problems such as brain-scale modelling and planetary-scale weather modelling.