Back in the day when a 100M floppy drive was a big deal, there were rumors circulating of a future technology that would one day offer a three-dimensional computer chip the size of a sugar cube with staggering memory storage capabilities ... like 32 gigabytes (an almost unimaginable amount of memory at the time).
Flash forward 2010 — flash technology is now delivering 32G memory cards for less than $100, with ultra-fast 64G cards just around the corner. One might be tempted to think that flash chips will just keep doubling in memory and speed, but the days of flash memory may in fact be ending very, very soon.
The New York Times
reports that HP will unveil today a breakthrough technology which was invented in the 70's and successfully prototyped in 2008 in the HP labs. Called "memristors" these almost atomic-scale devices can act as a replacement to standard transistor switches used in flash memory but with added features that make flash technology look almost medieval by comparison.
For one they also hold memory (hence memristor) even in the absence of electrical current which will both dramatically reduce the energy consumption of memristor computers and dramatically increase the amount of memory that can be stored in one card.
But the real exciting innovation is that memristors can be linked and stacked 3-dimensionally, a feature which as inventor Dr. Leon Chua explains, closely resembles the biological technology of the brain synapse:
Our brains are made of memristors ... We have the right stuff now to build real brains.
Within three years HP believes it will be able to double the memory capacity per square centimeter over a typical next-generation flash card (estimated at 10G per cm2), spelling the beginning of the end for flash memory. According to experts, flash memory has only a few more generations left before it hits its limit. Memristors on the other hand will start out at 20G per cm2 and have an almost unending horizon of scalability — their power could theoretically double every three years for the rest of the century.
The secret ingredient? Titanium dioxide — an abundant mineral that has become the material of choice for scientists looking to pattern modern-day technologies after common biological processes. The age of the biologically inspired machine, it seems, has arrived.