A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing

Announced 10/20/2015

Create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.

While it continues to be a national priority to advance conventional digital computing—which has been the engine of the information technology revolution—current technology falls far short of the human brain in terms of both the brain’s sensing and problem-solving abilities and its low power consumption. Many experts predict that fundamental physical limitations will prevent transistor technology from ever matching these twin characteristics.  This grand challenge will bring together scientists and engineers from many disciplines to look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the Von Neumann architecture as implemented with transistor-based processors, and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

To meet this challenge, major breakthroughs are needed not only in the basic devices that store and process information, but in the way a computer analyzes images, sounds, and patterns, interprets and learns from data, and identifies and solves problems.  A human can do such tasks in ways that a conventional computer cannot, with a fault-tolerant, adaptive brain that uses less energy than it takes to power an incandescent light bulb.  By combining innovations in nanotechnology, computer science, and neuroscience, radically new approaches to creating both hardware and software can be developed, enabling computers capable of efficiently interpreting images and speech, proactively spotting patterns and anomalies in data, learning from data as it is received, and solving unfamiliar problems using what has been learned.

Many of these approaches will require new kinds of nanoscale devices and materials integrated into three-dimensional systems.  These nanotechnology innovations will need to be developed in close coordination with new computer architectures and informed by our growing understanding of the brain.  Although it may take a decade or more, enabling these transformational computing capabilities will be essential for turning the rising deluge of data that surrounds us into useful information when and where it is needed.  Efficiently interpreting and responding to this data will be crucial to solving important problems facing the Nation, from delivering individualized treatments for disease, to allowing advanced robots to work safely alongside people, to proactively identifying and blocking cyber intrusions.


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