Computers: work smarter, not smaller

If you haven’t heard the news, computers are facing the end of Moore’s law, which was a prediction of how computers would get more powerful over time that held up nicely until now. The reason for this is because it’s now impossible to make them any smaller.

There’s a reason for that.

Our friend, Silicon

Silicon is an abundant element on Earth and as a semicunductor, it’s mature tech, the best kind of tech for most intents and purposes. The only problem with it is a pesky little thing we call "physics." Silicon logic gates are currently sitting at the smallest they can possibly be at 12 atoms across. 10 of those atoms serve as the gate itself that resists the electron flow, and it takes all 10 of them to prevent leakage and therefore potential error. If you’ve ever heard of a cosmic ray doing a bit flip, it’s because it hit something somewhere in the middle of those 10.

So currently there’s a search for what could be smaller than 12 silicon atoms across that could be abundant enough to do the same job everywhere. There’s been a recent advance using Rhenium, but that comes with some very pesky caveats for the time being, such as "incompatible with today’s tech" and "made of one of the rarest elements in the world."

The P-bit

The solution is actually probably the answer to an entirely different question: "how do you bring quantum computing into the home?" The answer is probabilistic bits, or P-bits. These have had my passing interest for a few years now, and while Perdue and their method of rapidly cycling the 1 and 0 for an individual bit seems to be the easiest to search these days, there’s an alternative method of using multiple levels of voltage to offer a gradient as well. As electricity is one of my blind spots, I assume this is a means of influencing the independent oscillation of the individual bit, but trying to search for it at this point is nigh impossible. Thanks, Google!

The end result is more or less the same: where a quantum bit or Q-bit exists in the superposition of spins in a vacuum using supercooled components for proper entanglement, a P-bit just flips between 1 and 0 and wherever you catch it in the moment gets thrown into the rest of the calculation. Oh, and all it takes is super crappy thumb drive tech. No, I’m not joking, conventional MRAM minus the stabilizers normally applied to it makes for an incredibly cheap and effective source of P-bits.

Using P-bits allows you to solve traditionally quantum problems using existing tech in the standard conditions we all comfortably live in and there is nothing stopping anyone from putting it into your phone right next to the actually good MRAM. Yes, it does it much more slowly than quantum computers can, but it also does it much more quickly than traditional computers. Quantum can absolutely still make a major difference solving the mysteries of the universe, but probabilistic computing can solve some pretty nifty things without having to be a mystery of the universe itself. It has applications in a number of practical fields including random number generation, machine learning, and crunching some of the very serious numbers that quantum computing otherwise would be required for. It might not speed up your games much, but it would certainly make "fuzzy logic" operations much faster, maybe help with things like voice recognition or enemy A.I., basically anything that’s less the already very fast basic math stuff and more the "guess and check" things traditional computers struggle with.

Bigger and better

Something we also just might have to accept is that technology may one day simply peak and that day might be today. Computers didn’t always work the way they do now; they started with vacuum tubes. Maybe we’ve simply reached the limit of what’s physically possible with the current setup and finding a better semiconductor isn’t going to magically change that. Sure, it might let us get something a little smaller, but consider what your phone already cost and consider that the bulk of what made it expensive is fancy sand and plenty of mark-up. I’m sure you wouldn’t pay what you paid for your phone for a handful of sand. Silicon is so attractive because it’s so plentiful.

The reason this is important is because making phones ever more powerful is the main justification for making you buy new ones forever. Manufacturers really, really want to keep selling phones forever, you see, and making it more powerful than the last one (or the competition) is a good way of justifying making you buy it.

The thing is, a phone is only really a phone until it reaches a certain size and then it’s a tablet. We’re already reaching that with things like the Microsoft Surface phone and the various folding phones that still break in like 10 seconds because the world has dirt in it. But the answer might not be a phone the folds out into a full-sized accordion so much as a lapdock. Yeah, remember those? The laptop with no "laptop" in it that magically became a computer when you plugged a phone in? Those might be due for a comeback. And the best part is that now that everything is standardized on USB-C, it wouldn’t take much effort to throw any old phone in there. Maybe it starts getting a bit fancier with extra RAM and stuff and phone power is allowed to gracefully trail off, but if you want something lightweight and powerful that fits in a satchel, the lapdock requires no drives, no speakers, no ports, no CPU, no RAM, no video card, and no operating system. By all means, you can ADD some or all of that, and doing just that might be the means to make phones more powerful. And a lapdock doesn’t necessarily need to be a full laptop, either. It could be as simple as a clamshell design with a fold-out keyboard. More or less "twice the phone means twice the power." Only half of the phone can be a bit chunkier if it has to be.

Likewise, computer cases and consoles have plenty of empty space and while that might be important for airflow purposes, some of that is also just an effort to dominate shelf space and could be filled out a bit more. Computers don’t have to get smaller if there’s room on the shelf for them to get bigger. And they don’t just have to get chunkier. Consoles in particular are in a position that they could technically be wired together to take advantage of certain processing tasks. I wrote on this years ago, but seeing as PS3 server farms were already used for distributed computing purposes, there’s really no reason Sony or Microsoft couldn’t take advantage of the ecosystem of their own hardware on-prem if they could do things like offload A.I. calculations to another machine. It’s essentially the same principle as wiring them up to expansion bits like SEGA and Nintendo did back in the day, or like Sony did with the satellite box for the original PSVR just to handle positional sound. If it’s nothing time-sensitive, it could even potentially be done wirelessly provided your router is good enough. "Backwards compatibility" might eventually be less a matter of including on-board emulation or legacy hardware and more a matter of simply falling back to an earlier use of a local compute unit. But even if your living room doesn’t become a multi-generation server rack, consoles have no particular need to be small. Ultimately, something like the Switch is going to cap out in the foreseeable future and it’s going to be up to living room machines to deliver the Holodeck. Whether it does it by connecting various parts or by delivering one chunkier part is academic; the answer is that something is going to get bigger. If the PS5 Slim is any indication, consoles are already facing the need to be chunky and sizing them down is basically no longer possible now matter how clever you get. The PS6 is going to be even bigger and if Sony and Microsoft are smart, they’re going to start asking what they can do to start breaking things up. An external power brick is only going to solve the problem for so long.

Small tech isn’t dead

Ultimately, none of this means that cell phones are over; just that increasing power isn’t how they’ll be sold going forward. Just like the resolution arms race happening with TVs where bigger numbers mean "better" because that’s the easiest thing for anyone to understand, bigger numbers for phone specs are at an end stage and they’ll need to find other things to differentiate themselves. We’ve been through this with the "Bit Wars" and graphics and the fact of the matter is technology is just better at this point than the average human can truly appreciate. We have all the colors we can see; the days of visible polygons are effectively over; phones are more powerful now than PCs were 20 years ago. We have witnessed the biggest graphical leap humanity will ever see and it was on the PS2. Heck, the biggest PS2 remasters look worse than the originals.

Phones, portable gaming devices, all of this will need to find some other way to sell itself. That means they’ll need to differentiate themselves with features once power is all equal. But phones are not going to go away. Portable consoles, maybe, but not phones. And honestly, we could do with some good portable consoles again considering phones still haven’t fulfilled their promise in that department and never will at this rate. Ultimately, I don’t know what the killer feature will be. Cameras can only go so far and the best one I ever had was on the Motorola Droid Razr Duo a decade ago. Maybe we really will live in a world where devices are judged by the kind of general artificial intelligence you can install on it someday. Best estimates say we have another 30 or so years until then, though.

Ultimately, we need to understand that we live in a universe with limited physics on a tiny planet with limited resources and "line go up" is never something that can happen forever. Someday, everything will hit its limit, no matter what that thing is. We are hitting the limit physics imposes on our computers and maybe Capitalism just has to deal with that and companies that are mega-giants selling bigger and better crash and burn or otherwise turn into smaller enterprises that focus on replacements, because no technology is ever going to solve dropping your phone in the street and 20 cars and buses running over it. Maybe they’ll drop some new novel feature every once in a while, but that feature isn’t going to be "more powerful than last year’s model."