Analog computers were a hot idea — in the 1950s! But I find this intriguing because I’ve come around to the position that a lot of our human “intelligence” is the result of acquiring and using probabilistic models. So supporting this in hardware might be a big win, especially for low-cost, low-power devices. It will also support lots of other common tasks in social computing, image processing and language technology.

Technology review has a short article, A New Kind of Microchip, on computer chip being developed by Lyric Semiconductor that process signals representing probabilities rather than digital bits.

“A computer chip that performs calculations using probabilities, instead of binary logic, could accelerate everything from online banking systems to the flash memory in smart phones and other gadgets. … And because that kind of math is at the core of many products, there are many potential applications. “To take one example, Amazon’s recommendations to you are based on probability,” says Vigoda. “Any time you buy [from] them, the fraud check on your credit card is also probability [based], and when they e-mail your confirmation, it passes through a spam filter that also uses probability.”

All those examples involve comparing different data to find the most likely fit. Implementing the math needed to do this is simpler with a chip that works with probabilities, says Vigoda, allowing smaller chips to do the same job at a faster rate. A processor that dramatically speeds up such probability-based calculations could find all kinds of uses.”

Lyric’s chip is called LEC and was developed with support from DARPA. It is 30 times smaller in size than current digital error correction technology according to Wired. Although small it yields “a Pentium’s worth of computation,” according to Lyric CEO Vigoda. His 2003 dissertation at MIT was on a related topic, Analog Logic: Continuous-Time Analog Circuits for Statistical Signal Processing.

You can also read about the LEC chip in a story in yesterday’s NYT, A Chip That Digests Data and Calculates the Odds.