Hewlett-Packard is taking the wraps off a new technology that analysts say could be "a major game changer" for computers and personal devices.
HP Labs released information today on a research project dubbed the "memristor," which is a resistor with memory. A resistor constricts current flow inside a circuit and is a key part of nearly every electrical device in use today.
Though the memristor was developed to expand devices' memory capacity, HP researchers discovered that it also can be used for logic computations.
That means that within six to eight years the memristor could be used to handle both memory and logic in the same chip at the same time. And that, say analysts, will bring dramatic change to the computer industry.
"Memristors have the potential to turn the computing world upside down," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Because they are both processor and storage, they act much like synapses in the human brain. Networked together, they look to be very much faster at tasks, like pattern recognition, than conventional computers. Because of the memory aspect, they can 'learn' much better than today's systems."
Still in the research stage, the memristor is designed to be added to chips, giving transistors a sort of turbo boost, according to Stan Williams, a senior fellow with HP Labs. While some reports today have said that the memristor is designed to replace the transistor, which is one of the key building blocks of the chip, Williams said that's not the case.
The memristor and the transistor are complimentary. "Memristors are a supercharger for a transistor-integrated circuit," Williams said in an interview. "All of the circuits we're building now are hybrids with both transistors and memristors."
This new hybrid design, which could be used in PCs and small electronic devices like smart phones, could change the basic chip architecture. Today, memory and computing functions are done separately on a chip, so data has to be transferred between the two - and that is costly in terms of computing time and energy used.
"It's really a very different type of process," said Williams. "Instead of having to move data between a memory chip and a logic chip, you could just send your program to where the data is in the memory, perform the computation locally and then just send the data out."
Williams noted that he expects to see memristors used for memory in devices in three years. While it would compete with Flash memory, it would have more memory, use less power and be a lot faster.
"We are hoping that in three years to have a memristor-based circuit that will have more than twice the amount of storage as a flash memory chip will have three years from now -- and at the same time, have that chip be 10 times faster than a flash memory chip."
By the latter part of the decade, Williams said he hopes to see memristors used in chips to do computation, as well as storage.
"This is potentially a major game changer," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "If they can get this to market timely and priced well, it could change the face of personal electronics."
Martin Reynolds, an analyst with Gartner Inc., said this could mean big changes for the flash memory industry alone.
"If they can meet their targets - and it sounds like they can - memristors could start to appear in 2013, and rapidly take share from flash," he added. "Users won't see anything - just the continued cost-decline of memory.... The devices [using it] will be smaller and more powerful anyway. This is one of several technologies that could matter."
Olds noted that the memristors offer considerable advantage on the logistical side. They are seven to nine times smaller than flash memory, meaning that more storage can be jammed into a much smaller space.
"Its advances like memristors that will bring something like the 3-D Web into reality," he added. "Devices using memristor will be startlingly different than what we see today. First, they'll be much smaller, of course, and much smarter. These devices will also be able to reproduce much richer and more immersive visual experiences, too. They have incredible processing power for their size and will be able to generate content fast enough to make virtual experiences seem real."
Since HP is not a chip maker, Williams said they are partnering with a "couple" of companies on their new chip design. He would not name the chip makers involved.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.