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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Authenticated News/Getty Staff, GraphicaArtis/Getty Contributor

Returning to a technology largely discarded since the 1960s, scientists are betting on analog computing to wean AI systems off the monstrous amounts of electricity they currently require.

Why it matters: AI is on track to use up a tenth of the world's electricity by 2025, by one estimate. Cutting back on this consumption has huge climate implications — plus it’s essential for mobile devices and autonomous cars to do complex calculations on the fly.

The background: Analog computing was dethroned by today's dominant digital machines in the 1960s. Since then, computing has been about "higher speed, higher precision, higher throughput," says IBM's Jeff Welser. That's where digital tech shines.

  • But as AI becomes omnipresent, some of those core requirements of computers are being reconsidered.
  • A realization is dawning in some corners of the tech world that "maybe we were too quick to dispense with analog 60 years ago," says Eli Yablonovitch, a professor at Berkeley.

What's happening: The neural networks that drive most AI systems rely on multiplying numbers really, really fast. They currently use the precision and power of digital computing for the job. But AI computations may not need to be so precise.

  • "When you start getting pushed to the limits of what [digital computing] can offer, when you have a new class of problems, then it becomes interesting to revisit analog," says Shahin Farshchi, a computer scientist and VC at Lux Capital.
  • IBM, several startups, academic researchers and others are doing just that.

How it works: In a digital computer, everything runs on 1s and 0s — a universal, highly exact human-made language.

  • But an analog computer is built on the physical properties of its components. It can perform multiplication, for example, by utilizing the properties of transistors.
  • “The idea is to let the natural dynamics of the physical system solve the problem,” says Garrett Kenyon of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  • These systems come with obstacles: They can be inconsistent and difficult to program, Kenyon says.

Modern experiments with analog technology likely won’t result in a completely analog computer but a hybrid, with an analog portion that approximates an answer that can be fed into a digital part for refinement.

The big picture: There’s a broader resurgence of interest in new and forgotten approaches to computing.

  • "Both of the most futuristic areas we're looking at are actually not all digital," Welser says of analog and quantum computing.
  • Researchers at Los Alamos and elsewhere are developing neuromorphic chips, a subset of analog computing that more closely mirrors neurons in the brain.

"We use ideas regarding the principle of analog computing from the old days, but had to invent completely different ways of implementing them on a modern silicon chip, and had to come up with some completely new ideas as well," says Columbia University's Yannis Tsividis, whose lab is designing hybrid technologies for scientific computing.

What’s next: Analog computing is vying to be a part of the AI explosion. "AI is obviously already a very, very huge thing," says Yablonovitch. "If analog is contributing to that, then it means it has come back after 60 years in the wilderness."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jeff Welser's surname.

Go deeper

Neera Tanden withdraws nomination for Office of Management and Budget director

Neera Tanden testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, D.C., in February 2021. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Neera Tanden withdrew her name from nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget after several senators voiced opposition and concern about her qualifications and past combative tweets, President Biden announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: Tanden’s decision to pull her nomination marks Biden's first setback in filling out his Cabinet with a thin Democratic majority in the Senate.

What's ahead for the newest female CEOs

Jane Fraser (L) and Rosalind Brewer. Photos: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images; Rodrigo Capote/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The number of women at the helm of America’s biggest companies pales in comparison to men, but is newly growing — and their tasks are huge.

What's going on: Jane Fraser took over at Citigroup this week, the first woman to ever lead a major U.S. bank. Rosalind Brewer will take the reins at Walgreens in the coming weeks (March 15) — a company that's been run by white men for more than a century.

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Biden says U.S. will have enough vaccines for 300 million adults by end of May

President Biden. Photo: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden on Tuesday said that ramped-up coronavirus vaccine production will provide enough doses for 300 million Americans by the end May.

Why it matters: That's two months sooner than Biden's previous promise of enough vaccines for all American adults by the end of July.