Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016

The processing power of standard computers is likely to reach its maximum in the next 10 to 25 years. Even at this maximum power, traditional computers won't be able to handle a particular class of problem that involves combining variables to come up with many possible answers, and looking for the best solution.

Now, an entirely new type of computer that blends optical and electrical processing, reported Oct. 20 in the journal Science, could get around this impending processing constraint and solve those problems. If it can be scaled up, this non-traditional computer could save costs by finding more optimal solutions to problems that have an incredibly high number of possible solutions.


Post-doctoral scholar Peter McMahon, left, and visiting researcher Alireza Marandi examine a prototype of a new type of light-based computer.

Credit: L.A. Cicero

"This is a machine that's in a sense the first in its class, and the idea is that it opens up a sub-field of research in the area of non-traditional computing machines," said Peter McMahon, postdoctoral scholar in applied physics and co-author of the paper. "There are many, many questions that this development raises and we expect that over the next few years, several groups are going to be investigating this class of machine and looking into how this approach will pan out."

The traveling salesman problem

There is a special type of problem - called a combinatorial optimization problem - that traditional computers find difficult to solve, even approximately. An example is what's known as the "traveling salesman" problem, wherein a salesman has to visit a specific set of cities, each only once, and return to the first city, and the salesman wants to take the most efficient route possible. This problem may seem simple but the number of possible routes increases extremely rapidly as cities are added, and this underlies why the problem is difficult to solve.

"Those problems are challenging for standard computers, even supercomputers, because as the size grows, at some point, it takes the age of the universe to search through all the possible solutions," said Alireza Marandi, a former postdoctoral scholar at Stanford and co-author of the study. "This is true even with a supercomputer because the growth in possibilities is so fast."

It may be tempting to simply give up on the traveling salesman, but solving such hard optimization problems could have enormous impact in a wide range of areas. Examples include finding the optimal path for delivery trucks, minimizing interference in wireless networks, and determining how proteins fold. Even small improvements in some of these areas could result in massive monetary savings, which is why some scientists have spent their careers creating algorithms that produce very good approximate solutions to this type of problem.

An Ising machine

The Stanford team has built what's called an Ising machine, named for a mathematical model of magnetism. The machine acts like a reprogrammable network of artificial magnets where each magnet only points up or down and, like a real magnetic system, it is expected to tend toward operating at low energy.

The theory is that, if the connections among a network of magnets can be programmed to represent the problem at hand, once they settle on the optimal, low-energy directions they should face, the solution can be derived from their final state. In the case of the traveling salesman, each artificial magnet in the Ising machine represents the position of a city in a particular path.

Rather than using magnets on a grid, the Stanford team used a special kind of laser system, known as a degenerate optical parametric oscillator, that, when turned on, will represent an upward- or downward-pointing "spin." Pulses of the laser represent a city's position in a path the salesman could take. In an earlier version of this machine (published two years ago), the team members extracted a small portion of each pulse, delayed it and added a controlled amount of that portion to the subsequent pulses. In traveling salesman terms, this is how they program the machine with the connections and distances between the cities. The pulse-to-pulse couplings constitute the programming of the problem. Then the machine is turned on to try to find a solution, which can be obtained by measuring the final output phases of the pulses.

The problem in this previous approach was connecting large numbers of pulses in arbitrarily complex ways. It was doable but required an added controllable optical delay for each pulse, which was costly and difficult to implement.

Scaling up

The latest Stanford Ising machine shows that a drastically more affordable and practical version could be made by replacing the controllable optical delays with a digital electronic circuit. The circuit emulates the optical connections among the pulses in order to program the problem and the laser system still solves it.

Nearly all of the materials used to make this machine are off-the-shelf elements that are already used for telecommunications. That, in combination with the simplicity of the programming, makes it easy to scale up. Stanford's machine is currently able to solve 100-variable problems with any arbitrary set of connections between variables, and it has been tested on thousands of scenarios.

A group at NTT in Japan that consulted with Stanford's team has also created an independent version of the machine; its study has been published alongside Stanford's by Science. For now, the Ising machine still falls short of beating the processing power of traditional digital computers when it comes to combinatorial optimization. But it is gaining ground fast and the researchers are looking forward to seeing what other work will be possible based on this breakthrough.

"I think it's an exciting avenue of exploration for finding alternative computers. It can get us closer to more efficient ways of tackling some of the most daunting computational problems we have," said Marandi. "So far, we've made a laser-based computer that can target some of these problems, and we have already shown some promising results."

###

Additional authors are Ryan Hamerly, Carsten Langrock, Robert L. Byer, M. M. Fejer, Hideo Mabuchi, and Yoshihisa Yamamoto of Stanford University. Researchers from the National Institute of Informatics (Japan), University of Tokyo, NTT Basic Research Laboratories, and the ImPACT Program were also co-authors.

This research was funded by the Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies (ImPACT) Program of the Council of Science, Technology and In-novation (Cabinet Office, Government of Japan). McMahon was partially supported by a Stanford Nano- and Quantum Science and Engineering Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Media Contact

Taylor Kubota
tkubota@stanford.edu
650-724-7707

 @stanford

http://news.stanford.edu/ 

Taylor Kubota | EurekAlert!

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Touchscreens go 3D with buttons that pulsate and vibrate under your fingertips
14.03.2019 | Universität des Saarlandes

nachricht EU project CALADAN set to reduce manufacturing cost of Terabit/s capable optical transceivers
11.03.2019 | IHP - Leibniz-Institut für innovative Mikroelektronik

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Revealing the secret of the vacuum for the first time

New research group at the University of Jena combines theory and experiment to demonstrate for the first time certain physical processes in a quantum vacuum

For most people, a vacuum is an empty space. Quantum physics, on the other hand, assumes that even in this lowest-energy state, particles and antiparticles...

Im Focus: Sussex scientists one step closer to a clock that could replace GPS and Galileo

Physicists in the EPic Lab at University of Sussex make crucial development in global race to develop a portable atomic clock

Scientists in the Emergent Photonics Lab (EPic Lab) at the University of Sussex have made a breakthrough to a crucial element of an atomic clock - devices...

Im Focus: Sensing shakes

A new way to sense earthquakes could help improve early warning systems

Every year earthquakes worldwide claim hundreds or even thousands of lives. Forewarning allows people to head for safety and a matter of seconds could spell...

Im Focus: A thermo-sensor for magnetic bits

New concept for energy-efficient data processing technology

Scientists of the Department of Physics at the University of Hamburg, Germany, detected the magnetic states of atoms on a surface using only heat. The...

Im Focus: The moiré patterns of three layers change the electronic properties of graphene

Combining an atomically thin graphene and a boron nitride layer at a slightly rotated angle changes their electrical properties. Physicists at the University of Basel have now shown for the first time the combination with a third layer can result in new material properties also in a three-layer sandwich of carbon and boron nitride. This significantly increases the number of potential synthetic materials, report the researchers in the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Last year, researchers in the US caused a big stir when they showed that rotating two stacked graphene layers by a “magical” angle of 1.1 degrees turns...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

International Modelica Conference with 330 visitors from 21 countries at OTH Regensburg

11.03.2019 | Event News

Selection Completed: 580 Young Scientists from 88 Countries at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

01.03.2019 | Event News

LightMAT 2019 – 3rd International Conference on Light Materials – Science and Technology

28.02.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers measure near-perfect performance in low-cost semiconductors

18.03.2019 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Nanocrystal 'factory' could revolutionize quantum dot manufacturing

18.03.2019 | Materials Sciences

Long-distance quantum information exchange -- success at the nanoscale

18.03.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>