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Beyond binary

4 June 2019

Imagine a processor that wasn't limited to zeros and ones.

Imagine a processor that had a trinary or better representation of values?

For decades we have been increasing the power of computers by increasing the size of the data-chunks they can handle in a single instruction. The first microcontrollers were simple 4-bit devices that later grew into the 8-bit machines that began the whole desktop computer revolution.

That revolution became an evolution and now the computer in your phone, on your desk or in your tablet probably has the ability to cope with data in 64-bit chunks which, clock speeds aside, makes it far more powerful than those early offerings.

There is a problem with simply growing sideways -- it takes a lot of silicon and it becomes a law of diminishing returns. Many forms of data (such as characters) are best represented as simple 8 or 16-bit values. In such cases there's not a lot to be gained from processing them in 64-bit chunks.

But what if, instead of simply making our data pathways wider, we made them taller?

What if each bit could hold not just two values (zero or one) but three, four or more values?

That's research currently being worked on by researchers at the University of Dallas Texas.

According to this report on the Science Daily website, this research could help overcome the problems that engineers are now facing as they try to create ever-smaller, ever more densely packed silicon for new generations of CPUs.

The magic ingredient for this change to "beyond binary" computers is a relatively simple compound: zinc oxide. Using this material, "multi-value logic transistors" can be produced that are not limited to just a binary logic state.

A trinary bit can store three values rather than two. Two trinary bits can store nine values rather than four, etc, etc. It quickly becomes apparent that adding one extra value to each bit can significantly increase the effective power of a processor at very little cost in terms of chip area or power use.

The devices being worked on by the Dallas University have so far been able to operate with four logic states -- meaning that a single quaternary byte can represent 65536 different values, rather than the current 256 values in a binary system.

At a time when manufacturers such as Intel are struggling to get effective yields using technologies based on 10nm parts, a shift to non-binary processors could be the breakthrough needed to keep Moore's Law alive and well.

Of course, as we all know, there's a huge gap between lab-experiments and full-scale commercial production so don't expect to see a ternary or quaternary computer hitting the shelves for quite a while yet.

So I shall wait patiently (sound of drumming fingers)...

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