Ultra-simple computing: Part 2

Chip technology

My everyday PC uses an Intel Core-I7 3770 processor running at 3.4GHz. It has 4 cores running 8 threads on 1.4 billion 22nm transistors on just 160mm^2 of chip. It has an NVIDIA GeForce GTX660 graphics card, and has 16GB of main memory. It is OK most of the time, but although the processor and memory utilisation rarely gets above 30%, its response is often far from instant.

Let me compare it briefly with my (subjectively at time of ownership) best ever computer, my Macintosh 2Fx, RIP, which I got in 1991, the computer on which I first documented both the active contact lens and text messaging and on which I suppose I also started this project. The Mac 2Fx ran a 68030 processor at 40MHz, with 273,000 transistors and 4MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard drive. Every computer I’ve used since then has given me extra function at the expense of lower performance, wasted time and frustration.

Although its OS is stored on a 128GB solid state disk, my current PC takes several seconds longer to boot than my Macintosh Fx did – it went from cold to fully operational in 14 seconds – yes, I timed it. On my PC today, clicking a browser icon to first page usually takes a few seconds. Clicking on a word document back then took a couple of seconds to open. It still does now. Both computers gave real time response to typing and both featured occasional unexplained delays. I didn’t have any need for a firewall or virus checkers back then, but now I run tedious maintenance routines a few times every week. (The only virus I had before 2000 was nVir, which came on the Mac2 system disks). I still don’t get many viruses, but the significant time I spend avoiding them has to be counted too.

Going back further still, to my first ever computer in 1981, it was an Apple 2, and only had 9000 transistors running at 2.5MHz, with a piddling 32kB of memory. The OS was tiny. Nevertheless, on it I wrote my own spreadsheet, graphics programs, lens design programs, and an assortment of missile, aerodynamic and electromagnetic simulations. Using the same transistors as the I7, you could make 1000 of these in a single square millimetre!

Of course some things are better now. My PC has amazing graphics and image processing capabilities, though I rarely make full use of them. My PC allows me to browse the net (and see video ads). If I don’t mind telling Google who I am I can also watch videos on YouTube, or I could tell the BBC or some other video provider who I am and watch theirs. I could theoretically play quite sophisticated computer games, but it is my work machine, so I don’t. I do use it as a music player or to show photos. But mostly, I use it to write, just like my Apple 2 and my Mac Fx. Subjectively, it is about the same speed for those tasks. Graphics and video are the main things that differ.

I’m not suggesting going back to an Apple 2 or even an Fx. However, using I7 chip tech, a 9000 transistor processor running 1360 times faster and taking up 1/1000th of a square millimetre would still let me write documents and simulations, but would be blazingly fast compared to my old Apple 2. I could fit another 150,000 of them on the same chip space as the I7. Or I could have 5128 Mac Fxs running at 85 times normal speed. Or you could have something like a Mac FX running 85 times faster than the original for a tiny fraction of the price. There are certainly a few promising trees in the forest that nobody seems to have barked up. As an interesting aside, that 22nm tech Apple 2 chip would only be ten times bigger than a skin cell, probably less now, since my PC is already several months old

At the very least, that really begs the question what all this extra processing is needed for and why there is still ever any noticeable delay doing anything in spite of it. Each of those earlier machines was perfectly adequate for everyday tasks such as typing or spreadsheeting. All the extra speed has an impact only on some things and most is being wasted by poor code. Some of the delays we had 20 and 30 years ago still affect us just as badly today.

The main point though is that if you can make thousands of processors on a standard sized chip, you don’t have to run multitasking. Each task could have a processor all to itself.

The operating system currently runs programs to check all the processes that need attention, determine their priorities, schedule processing for them, and copy their data in and out of memory. That is not needed if each process can have its own dedicated processor and memory all the time. There are lots of ways of using basic physics to allocate processes to processors, relying on basic statistics to ensure that collisions rarely occur. No code is needed at all.

An ultra-simple computer could therefore have a large pool of powerful, free processors, each with their own memory, allocated on demand using simple physical processes. (I will describe a few options for the basic physics processes later). With no competition for memory or processing, a lot of delays would be eliminated too.

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