Monday, July 30, 2007

Return of the mechanical computer?

Is the mechanical computer about to make a comeback? It's an interesting possibility that is raised in a paper in the latest edition of the New Journal of Physics. In it, Robert Blick and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explain how a fully-mechanical nanoscale computing device might be constructed.

Blick and colleagues suggest that a nanomechanical computer (NMC) could be constructed by linking together lots of nanoelectromechanical single-electron transistors (NEMSETs), which would perform the most basic logical operations. These devices process information using the movement of a nanoscopic pillar (see image, bottom right). Many different NEMSET devices could, in theory, be connected mechanically to form a much larger, more complicated logical circuit, the researchers say.

The idea is a long way from the earliest computers, like the difference engine (see image, top left) or the analytical engine devised by Charles Babbage, or the Antikythera Mechanism of ancient Greece.

But Blick and colleagues say a nanomechanical computer could have several key advantages over a silicon computer architecture. It ought to waste less power, should be less vulnerable to electromagnetic interference, and could work at far higher temperatures, the team says.

This could make the mechanical computer of the future ideally suited to use aboard spacecraft, in military devices, and inside high-temperature machinery.

Source: BBC

Will Knight, online technology editor

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