How to Make the Universe Think for Us

Physicists are building neural networks out of vibrations, voltages and lasers, arguing that the future of computing lies in exploiting the universe’s complex physical behaviors.

When it comes to conventional machine learning, computer scientists have discovered that bigger is better. Stuffing a neural network with more artificial neurons — nodes that store numerical values — improves its ability to tell a dachshund from a Dalmatian, or to succeed at myriad other pattern recognition tasks. Truly tremendous neural networks can pull off unnervingly human undertakings like composing essays and creating illustrations. With more computational muscle, even grander feats may become possible. This potential has motivated a multitude of efforts to develop more powerful and efficient methods of computation.

McMahon and a band of like-minded physicists champion an unorthodox approach: Get the universe to crunch the numbers for us. “Many physical systems can naturally do some computation way more efficiently or faster than a computer can,” McMahon said. He cites wind tunnels: When engineers design a plane, they might digitize the blueprints and spend hours on a supercomputer simulating how air flows around the wings. Or they can stick the vehicle in a wind tunnel and see if it flies. From a computational perspective, the wind tunnel instantly “calculates” how wings interact with air.

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