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In the 18 months since the "missing link of electronics" was discovered in Hewlett-Packard's laboratories in Silicon Valley, California, memristors have spawned a hot new area of physics and raised hope of electronics becoming more like brains.
Memristors behave a bit like resistors, which develop a resistance to electrical current that is proportional to the current passing by at any moment. But rather than only respond to present conditions, a memristor can also "remember" the last current it experienced.
The similarities between memristive circuits and the behaviour of some simple organisms suggests the hybrid devices could also open the way for "neuromorphic" computing, says Williams, in which computers learn for themselves, like animals.
A memristor /ˈmɛmrɨstər/ ("memory resistor") is any of various kinds of passive two-terminal circuit elements that maintain a functional relationship between the time integrals of current and voltage. This function, called memristance, is similar to variable resistance. Specifically engineered memristors provide controllable resistance, but such devices are not commercially available.
Williams' solid-state memristors can be combined into devices called crossbar latches, which could replace transistors in future computers, taking up a much smaller area. They can also be fashioned into non-volatile solid-state memory, which would allow greater data density than hard drives with access times potentially similar to DRAM, replacing both components. HP prototyped a crossbar latch memory using the devices that can fit 100 gigabits in a square centimeter. HP has reported that its version of the memristor is about one-tenth the speed of DRAM. The devices' resistance would be read with alternating current so that they do not affect the stored value.