A square millimeter of future:
The analog computer on a chip

The innovator: Analog pioneer Bernd Ulmann

Bernd Ulmann is a man of passionate thought and deed. Fascinated by analog computers ever since he was a teenager, his enthusiasm only seems to be intensifying with time. His house is half-workshop, half-museum, brimming with at times huge analog computers, soldering stations and microscopes. By his own account, his wife tolerates this and “is kind enough to live elsewhere.” But Ulmann calms his visitor by adding that they see each other every day and love each other very much.

There aren’t enough hours in the day for this professor at a technical college, museum director, collector, repairman and Vaxman, as he is referred to in the scene (after the legendary VAX computer). For him, analog is the only way to go. Digital is sub-complex and not human enough, either. After all: An ordinary digital computer operates in a program-controlled manner by means of an algorithm; i.e., it performs individual steps, one at a time. An analog computer does not know any step-by-step execution; here, all computing elements operate in parallel. Essentially the way a nervous system or the human brain operates. Completely biologically. Nothing in biology can afford to compute sequentially. Hence, the future lies in analog computers, as Ulmann explains with Vaxmanic vehemence.

»Analog is the only way to go. Digital is sub-complex and not human enough, either.«


As Ulmann stresses, the problem with conventional, digital computers is that they consume too much energy and run up against physical boundaries. “Classical computing has reached an end. We need fresh ideas for high-performance computing – and the same is true for energy-efficient computing.”

In light of this, Ulmann’s dream and goal is to build an analog computer that is faster than any digital computer and consumes only a minimum of energy. Along with miniaturization, the actual innovation is the possibility of programming the analog computer under the control of a digital computer. The goal is to develop an analog computer on a chip no bigger than a few square millimeters in size. The same way we can now fit digital computers onto a single chip. A quantum leap that revolutionizes signal processing in mobile phones or medical implants, e.g. for brain pacemakers.
According to Ulmann, this is not magic but instead within reach. He needs two years and a team of 10-15 experts to make this goal come true.