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Making computer memory work like the human brain

John D. Sutter
HP Labs has developed a prototype for a new kind of computer memory called the memristor, shown here under a microscope.
HP Labs has developed a prototype for a new kind of computer memory called the memristor, shown here under a microscope.
  • HP announces a partnership to commercialize a new kind of computer memory
  • The memristor technology acts somewhat like a human brain's synapses
  • Memory chips move atoms to store information
  • The technology may be commercialized within three years, HP Labs says

(CNN) -- How do computers remember things?

It's something most of us never think about. But you may start to take notice if HP Labs is successful in commercializing a new version of computer memory, which would make our electronics dramatically faster and more energy efficient.

The technology is called memristor, and it is designed to work more like our brains and less like the electronic on and off switches that run computer memory now.

"The memristor has properties very similar to synapses in a brain," said Stan Williams, a senior fellow at HP Labs, which has been working on this technology since 1998.

Unlike conventional computer memory, which stores data with electronic on and off switches, Hewlett-Packard's memristor technology works on the atomic level. As electrons move across a titanium dioxide memristor chip, they nudge atoms ever so slightly, sometimes no more than a nanometer.

These subtle bumps record changes in the data.

"It's kind of like an atomic switch," he said.

The impact of memristors on consumers could be sweeping.

The technology claims to be 100 times as fast as flash storage and use about a 10th of the energy. That means some gadgets, such as MP3 players, might only need to be powered up once in their lifetime, Williams said.

"I would no longer have to remember to bring five different battery chargers with me when I pack my briefcase and go on a business trip," he said. Phones would still need to be recharged, however.

Since the memristor technology is so fast at writing data, this could also signal the end of long waits to boot up personal computers and laptops.

"It just drives me crazy that I have to wait for my computer to boot up, and it drives me even crazier that I have to wait to boot it down," Williams said. "I just want to punch the button and for it to go off, like a light bulb. And that's what the memristor is going to be able to do."

HP on Tuesday announced that it is partnering with Hynix Semiconductor to develop a way to commercialize the technology.

If all goes well, the first products that use memristor technology should be on store shelves within three years, Williams said.

Williams, who has been working on the memristor project with HP Labs, in Palo Alto, California, since its start, said the reason a revolution in computer memory is needed is that traditional ways of storing and retrieving data are about to reach a point where further innovation will be difficult.

Soon, he said, other computer memory alternatives such as flash memory, DRAM and hard drives will have gotten as small, fast and energy efficient as those technologies will allow.

Flash memory, for example, stores data by cramming electrons into a box, he said. Technologists have shoved almost as many electrons into those packages as possible, he said, and they can't think of ways to make that model better.

"It all comes down to the physics of the individual devices," Williams said.

HP is not the only company developing an alternative.

Intel, for example, is working on a technology called phase-change memory.

This involves heating glass and turning it into a crystal form.

That technology has been in development for much longer than memristor technology, Williams said, but it uses more energy.

Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner, the research firm, said it's still unclear if either of the technologies will work in commercial products.

"Both look great in the lab," he said. "The question is what happens when you start putting a trillion of these things in a single device and expect them to all work well enough to use it."

Reynolds said neither memory technology would pack much of a wow factor for consumers because their advancements won't be immediately noticeable. But he said he believes both will allow the quick pace of innovation in consumer technology -- making gadgets faster, smaller and more energy efficient -- to continue.

Without these advancements, he said, computing may start to slow down considerably.


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