New chips embrace errors, run faster and cheaper

Chips Known as "PCMOS", this new microprocessor uses 'probabilistic logic' and actually thrives on the errors that traditional chips strive to eliminate. The result is dramatic speed and energy efficiency improvements.

Microchips keep getting smaller and more powerful as the industry faithfully follows Moore's Law. But one of the challenges that chip makers face with the shrinking size of circuits is the increase in 'noise' that accompanies the minute processors. This noise leads to errors, which, if left uncorrected results in chips that don't perform as expected.

Typically, chip makers overcome this noise by increasing the amount of voltage used to run the chips. This has the effect of 'drowning out' the noise and thus eliminating the errors. But this means the smaller chips get, the more power-hungry they become.

Yesterday, at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, this approach was turned on its head. A U.S.-Singapore team unveiled the results of a new type of chip technology they have been developping. Known as PCMOS or Probablistic Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor, the chip's design works off the premise that in some computing applications, mistakes aren't the end of the world and can be minimized using a new branch of computing logic instead of power.

Ideally suited for application such as compressed video (e.g. on your cellphone) or voice transmission, or even computer graphics, the PCMOS design takes advantage of situations where the users' experience isn't compromised by small gaps in precision. In the case of mobile video, the small screen, combined with the human brain's ability to process less-than-perfect pictures, results in a case where the picture looks just as good with a calculation that's only approximately correct.

While the increases in processor speed is exciting, the real benefit appears to be an environmental one.

If PCMOS can slash energy use for embedded ASICs in key devices, the implications are enormous. For consumers, it could mean the difference between charging a cell phone every few weeks instead of every few days. Globally, that would help reduce the information technology industry's carbon footprint.