Stochastic thermodynamics of computation

05/14/2019
by   David H. Wolpert, et al.
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One of the major resource requirements of computers - ranging from biological cells to human brains to high-performance (engineered) computers - is the energy used to run them. Those costs of performing a computation have long been a focus of research in physics, going back to the early work of Landauer. One of the most prominent aspects of computers is that they are inherently nonequilibrium systems. However, the early research was done when nonequilibrium statistical physics was in its infancy, which meant the work was formulated in terms of equilibrium statistical physics. Since then there have been major breakthroughs in nonequilibrium statistical physics, which are allowing us to investigate the myriad aspects of the relationship between statistical physics and computation, extending well beyond the issue of how much work is required to erase a bit. In this paper I review some of this recent work on the `stochastic thermodynamics of computation'. After reviewing the salient parts of information theory, computer science theory, and stochastic thermodynamics, I summarize what has been learned about the entropic costs of performing a broad range of computations, extending from bit erasure to loop-free circuits to logically reversible circuits to information ratchets to Turing machines. These results reveal new, challenging engineering problems for how to design computers to have minimal thermodynamic costs. They also allow us to start to combine computer science theory and stochastic thermodynamics at a foundational level, thereby expanding both.

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