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Hewlett Packard Machine
In a video tied to the 2016 movie “Star Trek Beyond,” Hewlett Packard Enterprise imagines a time when Starfleet trainees learn about the rise of The Machine. (HPE Discover via YouTube)

What does a prototype computer with 160 terabytes of memory have to do with missions to Mars? The way Kirk Bresniker sees it, a giant leap in computing is required for the giant leap to the Red Planet.

“That’s actually what we need to wrap around that crew,” Bresniker, chief architect at Hewlett Packard Labs, told GeekWire.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Bresniker said the latest prototype in a Hewlett Packard Enterprise research project known as The Machine, unveiled today, represents one not-so-small step toward the kind of computer that could be included on a Mars mission.

“We have talked with some of the teams who have worked on mission proposals” for journeys to Mars, he said. Bresniker isn’t naming names, but he acknowledged that the companies he’s talking with are on the level of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

It’s not just aerospace companies that could benefit: Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman says the computer architecture being developed for The Machine is well-suited for addressing big problems on Earth as well.

“The secrets to the next great scientific breakthrough, industry-changing innovation or life-altering technology hide in plain sight behind the mountains of data we create every day,” Whitman said in a statement released today. “To realize this promise, we can’t rely on the technologies of the past. We need a computer built for the Big Data era.”

HPE calls its concept for The Machine “memory-driven computing.” Rather than loading data into standard silicon-based memory and relying on calculations and recalculations to process the information, the computer can hold and manipulate entire data sets in its arrays of memristors.

Memory-driven computing has the potential to keep processing power climbing upward, which is just what the industry needs right now, Bresniker said.

“Moore’s Law is running out of steam,” he said. “Now that it’s coming to an end, it leaves us exposed.”

Not everyone is sold on The Machine: When HPE provided an update on the project last November, some observers said that its memristor technology didn’t look as if it was ready for prime time, and that the concept would “not emerge from the labs as an official product anytime soon.”

Today’s announcement signals that HPE still has high hopes for The Machine, at least over the long term.

HPE said its prototype device, comprising 160 terabytes of shared memory spread across 40 physical nodes, is the world’s largest single-memory computer. And Bresniker’s lab is just getting warmed up.

Bresniker says the computer architecture is on track to scale up to the exabyte level – that is, a million terabytes of memory – by the year 2022 or so.

Beyond that, HPE says the sky’s the limit. More precisely, the limit appears to be 4,096 yottabytes, which HPE says is about 250,000 times the total size of today’s digital universe. (For numbers geeks, one yottabyte equals 1024 bytes, or a septillion bytes.)

Theoretically, that monstrous amount of memory could accommodate every scenario that Mission Control could anticipate for an interplanetary mission.

“By pre-calculating a large number of those plans … you can include as many ‘black swans’ as your design team can come up with,” Bresniker said. What’s more, memristor-based data storage systems are “much less susceptible to radiation” than today’s systems, he said.

If HPE follow through on its vision for The Machine, that should make it easier for Mars-bound crews in the 2030s to rely on their onboard computers rather than having to check with Mission Control.

In the midst of a crisis, relying on communications with Earth for guidance would be highly problematic for crewed Mars missions, since the two-way light travel time for signals can exceed 40 minutes.

Bresniker sees future Mars missions as “the perfect laboratory” for The Machine, and he’s looking forward to seeing what astronauts do with the computers that Hewlett Packard Enterprise will create. “Being able to bring those computational capabilities with them is what’s particularly interesting to us,” he said.

Let’s just hope those machines are more like the even-tempered computer from “Star Trek,” and less like the creepy HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Bresniker, who leads The Machine research project, will deliver a Facebook Live presentation on memory-driven computing and its potential to support missions to Mars at 11:20 a.m. PT today.

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