May 1, 2008 Researchers from HP Labs have proven the existence of what had previously been only theorized as the fourth fundamental circuit element in electrical engineering. The “memristor”, (short for memory resistor), could make it possible to develop computer systems that have memories that do not forget, do not need to be booted up, consume far less power and associate information in a manner similar to that of the human brain.

In a paper published in the April 30 edition of Nature, four researchers at HP Labs’ Information and Quantum Systems Lab, led by R. Stanley Williams, presented the mathematical model and a physical example of a memristor, which has the unique property of retaining a history of the information it has acquired. The research could see the development of a new kind of computer memory that would supplement and eventually replace today’s commonly used dynamic random access memory (DRAM). Computers using conventional DRAM lack the ability to retain information once they lose power. When power is restored to a DRAM-based computer, a slow, energy-consuming “boot-up” process is necessary to retrieve data from a magnetic disk required to run the system. In contrast, a memristor-based computer would retain its information after losing power and would not require the boot-up process, resulting in the consumption of less power and a computer that could be turned off and on like a light bulb.

Another potential application of memristor technology could be the development of computer systems that remember and associate series of events in a manner similar to the way a human brain recognizes patterns. This could substantially improve today’s facial recognition technology, enable security and privacy features that recognize a complex set of biometric features of an authorized person to access personal information, or enable an appliance to learn from experience.

Leon Chua, a distinguished faculty member in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department of the University of California at Berkeley, initially theorized about and named the element in an academic paper published 37 years ago and argued that the memristor was the fourth fundamental circuit element, along with the resistor, capacitor and inductor, and that it had properties that could not be duplicated by any combination of the other three elements. Although researchers had observed instances of memristance for more than 50 years, Williams and his team are the first to prove the existence of the memristor by building on their research in nanoelectronics.

“To find something new and yet so fundamental in the mature field of electrical engineering is a big surprise, and one that has significant implications for the future of computer science,” said Williams, and we’d have to agree. Anything that promises to do away with that interminable wait for the computer to boot up, qualifies as significant on those grounds alone.

For further info visit HP Labs.