Breaking the Speed Limit - Episode 1

Monday 29th December at 7:15pm on five

Initiated by Michael Faraday in the mid 1820s, the Christmas Lectures are held annually and are the flagship of the Royal Institution. They serve as a forum for presenting complex scientific issues to young people in an informative and entertaining manner, and are well known for the participation of students in demonstrations and experiments. This year, the theme of the lectures is ‘Hi-tech Trek’ –the quest to find the ultimate computer. The first instalment examines the object that forms the nerve centre of computing –the tiny yet magnificent microprocessor.

This year’s lectures are conducted by Professor Chris Bishop, chief research scientist with Microsoft Research and Professor of Computer Science at Edinburgh University. After graduating with first class honours in Physics from Oxford, Professor Bishop went on to earn a PhD in theoretical physics from Edinburgh University. His research interests include probabilistic approaches to machine learning, as well as their application to fields such as computer vision.

Inside every personal computer, mobile phone and games console is one of the most complex pieces of engineering ever created –the microprocessor. A microprocessor is a miniature version of a central processing unit held on a single circuit. This compact machine is crafted from semi-conductor material –usually silicon.

Professor Bishop goes on a fascinating exploration of the extraordinary world of the silicon chip and attempts to answer the plethora of questions associated with this technology. How is it possible to build a machine as complex as this with a billion tiny components packed into a space the size of a postage stamp? What are the challenges that are making it harder to continue the incredible improvement in speed, and what ideas are being explored to overcome them? Can new kinds of computers be built that are based on individual molecules? Can single electrons be used to store information? Could computation machines exist without consuming energy?

As scientists race to make computers faster and cheaper than ever before, Professor Bishop also asks whether scientists will eventually hit a wall. After decades of continuing enhancements and ever-increasing processing speeds, is there anything of significance that is yet to be achieved in the world of computing?

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