Beyond silicon: the processor tech of 2035

The sci-fi tech that will revolutionise the PC

Beyond silicon

Boffins and analysts regularly suggest that silicon's days are numbered. For various technical reasons that we'll explore, they consign silicon to the dustbin.

We wanted to know if they were right to ring the knell. Assuming silicon chips really have evolved as far as they can, what's going to replace them?

Will the 2035 processors be optical, biological or quantum in nature, or are neural networks set to rule the world?

As we wrote this piece, we couldn't help smiling when the following story broke: IBM creates chip that mimics the human brain. This is SyNAPSE – a project that aims to create chips capable of 'cognitive computing', which means they instantly react and re-engineer themselves based on external stimuli and events.

Two prototype chips have been created, using advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry to recreate the neurons and synapses of biological systems. This lets the processors 'learn' from experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses and mimic the brain's structural and synaptic plasticity.

Dharmendra Modha, the leader of the project, explained that IBM aims to create "a system that not only analyses complex information from multiple sensory modalities, but also dynamically rewires itself as it interacts with its environment – all while rivalling the brain's compact size and low power usage."

Modha illustrated the idea behind the chips with the concept of traffic lights that are able to "integrate sights, sounds and smells, and flag unsafe intersections before disaster happens".

What amazes me about the prospect of a post-silicon era of computing is that it won't just be faster. Today we're well used to chips that can muscle their way through floating point mathematics at ever increasing rates.

Tomorrow's machines won't just be faster – they may be radically different. By aping how the brain works or making use of sci-fi grade goo, tomorrow's computers will likely be unrecognisably by today's standards and definitions. In 25 years' time we may look back on silicon in the same way we now regard Babbage's Difference Engine.

However the future shapes up, one thing is for certain: it'll be amazing fun being part of it. To the future!