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Nature vs Computer Architecture

22nd November 2014
Musings; Nature; Comp Arch

I have chosen to pursue my research in Computer Architecture and High Performance Computing. I have been reading research papers and journals to advance my knowledge and become abreast of the latest in this world. But as always our primal instincts (aka GUT) come calling at the time of need.
Man has always looked upto nature in designing and optimizing. Nature has created wonderful examples of trade-offs for designs. For example we gave up stability (walking on 4 legs) to stand up straight(walking on 2 legs), looking back and avoid being the hunted.

So I thought why not turn to nature for chip design!! Here are the results (expect some humour but look at the learnings!!)
1. Heat is a first rate important design parameter in Computer Architecture. It has a lot of bearings in upper bounding scaling up of cache / cores etc in chips. Guess what, nature has also hit upper bounds too.
Humans use just 10% of our brain capacity and when we do this for a couple of hours we go "cool off" !! 10% huh, all that idle capacity going underutlized if only I could fit an extra fan in my brain! Go figure.. It's the same reason we can't multi-task, too much energy draw for the brain at once. Even if we do manage it, even for sometime, the fuse trips and we screw up!!

2. We are not able to make chips any smaller and pack it with more transisters. (Hey! Mr. Moore can you please step aside and let me take center stage). Oh yeah! Nature has same problem.
Human brain weighs 1.5kg, compared to an elephant brain weighing 5kg, a whale 9kg. Going downwards dog and mouse brain weigh in grams!

Yet on a per weight basis humans pack more neurons than any other species. Look what happens when nature tried to make the brain smaller, things got dumber!! Thanks to this trade-off, humans are so smart and able to launch satellites and rockets.

3. Power is the next design parameter. We know its proportional to Voltage(square), frequency and percentage activity.
Let us see how the brain uses energy. (Warning: this may blow your mind). Rats and dogs use 5% of body energy, Apes use 10%. OK, coming to the Adult human brain uses (being just 2% of body weight) - 20% of daily glucose energy just to be concious. Did I mention for children is 50% and in babies its a whopping 60%!!

How are we able sustain this this energy need while apes, rats and dogs could not??
ANSWER: Cooked food! You heard me, I said "Cooked food"... Cooked food is softer and pre-digested and helps our gut absorb energy faster and supply it as required, than if we ate it raw. Now you know how we can sustain 86 billion neurons, 40% more than an ape!!! MORAL OF STORY: Don't give cooked food to apes in zoos and jungles!!
Well, what I wanted to say is that are we supplying the right power source to our processors. Is there a more conducive and "natural" way to use chips which will let us break this barrier? Only research will tell..

4. Look at neurons, just like transisters are the building blocks of your brain! But the difference is that even neurons are damaged the brain finds an alternative way to keep the function running till that neuron is healed, regrown or replaced. Coming to Architecture the key idea is to build a large number of a few types of general purpose hardware that can do any functionn and the combination of these can give us higher level function and also prevent failures (because of redundancy).

Oh! you wish your Computer Architecture professor had been so interesting now? :-P
Do let me know what other trade-off and design decision you've seen in nature that we can emulate in the comments section below.

Comments (2)

Nov 22, 2014

Impressive blog, funny and thoughtful

Nov 22, 2014

Thanks Amlesh :-)

Nov 22, 2014

I like the direction you are thinking in :-P

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