Research brings analog computers just one step from digital

Work from McKelvey School of Engineering may help usher in new analog computing revolution

Brandie Jefferson  

The future of computing may be analog.

The digital design of our everyday computers is good for reading email and gaming, but today’s problem-solving computers are working with vast amounts of data. The ability to both store and process this information can lead to performance bottlenecks due to the way computers are built.

The next computer revolution might be a new kind of hardware, called processing-in-memory (PIM), an emerging computing paradigm that merges the memory and processing unit and does its computations using the physical properties of the machine — no 1s or 0s needed to do the processing digitally. 

At Washington University in St. Louis, researchers from the lab of Xuan “Silvia” Zhang, associate professor in the Preston M. Green Department of Electrical & Systems Engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering, have designed a new PIM circuit, which brings the flexibility of neural networks to bear on PIM computing. The circuit has the potential to increase PIM computing’s performance by orders of magnitude beyond its current theoretical capabilities.

Their research was published online Oct. 27 in the journal IEEE Transactions on Computers. The work was a collaboration with Li Jiang at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Traditionally designed computers are built using a Von Neuman architecture. Part of this design separates the memory — where data is stored — and the processor — where the actual computing is performed.

“Computing challenges today are data-intensive,” Zhang said. “We need to crunch tons of data, which creates a performance bottleneck at the interface of the processor and the memory.”

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