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Electricity-Free Mechanical Computer Goes Beyond Binary Data Storage

Researchers at North Carolina State University in the US have developed a mechanical computer prototype using polymer cubes that can go beyond the binary approach to data storage. The computer design is inspired by kirigami, the Japanese art of cutting and folding paper. It also allows data to be locked in place or edited without using any electronic components.

As the world rushes towards another rabbit hole of new computing technology, there is a growing concern about the excessive energy utilization from computing infrastructure. If cloud-based data storage was not a major drain on energy supply, the new artificial intelligence (AI)-based applications are even more energy intensive and show no signs of slowing down in the near future.

Amidst this, the idea of a mechanical computer that uses no electricity is welcome. In the past, mechanical computer designs have featured components like levers and gears. However, North Carolina State University researchers had different ideas for making a mechanical computer easier to operate.

Electricity-free mechanical computer goes beyond binary data storage

Kirigami-inspired design

The mechanical computer is made using polymer cubes no bigger than 1 cm. A functional unit comprises 64 such blocks connected to each other using thin strips of elastic tape. The design of these cubes is inspired by kirigami, and when any of these blocks is pushed up or down, it changes the geometry of the interconnected tubes.

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Thus, the functional unit is a metastructure that stores data or allows for more complex computations. To edit data on the blocks, the user has to pull along the edges of the metastructure, which stretches the elastic tape and allows for individual cubes to be moved. When the metastructure is released, the tape contracts, holding the cubes in place and locking the data.

“The information density is quite good,” said Yanbin Li, a post-doctoral researcher at the university who was involved in the research. “Using a binary framework – where cubes are either up or down – a simple metastructure of 9 functional units has more than 362,000 possible configurations.”

Not limited by binary

The researchers are, however, buoyed by the idea that the mechanical computer they have built does not limit them to data processing using the binary system alone. Each functional unit of 64 cubes can be configured in a wide variety of architectures, and the cubes can be stacked up to five spaces high.

Beyond the binary
The mechanical computer design allows researchers to go beyond the 0 and 1 that were possible in computing till date. Image credit: Mykola Lishchyshyn/iStock

“We think there is potential here for more complex computing, with data being conveyed by how high a given cube has been pushed up,” explained Jie Yin, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State.

“We’ve shown within this proof-of-concept system that cubes can have five or more different states. Theoretically, that means a given cube can convey not only a 1 or a 0, but also a 2, 3 or 4.”

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The researchers are also keen to deploy their system for applications beyond computing. “We’re also interested in exploring the potential utility of these metastructures to create haptic systems that display information in a three-dimensional context rather than as pixels on a screen,” added Li in the press release. For instance, a specific configuration of the cubes could serve as a three-dimensional password.

Source: IE

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