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Monday, March 10, 2008

Should every computer chip have a cosmic ray detector?

Slashdot It! How can distant supernovae, black holes and other cosmic events cause a desktop computer to crash? The answer is that they produce cosmic rays, which produce high energy particles in the atmosphere that can occasionally hit RAM chips. The moving particles trail electrons, which can infiltrate chips' circuits and cause errors. That's why computer chip giant Intel was in December awarded a US patent for the idea of building cosmic ray detectors into every chip (full patent). When cosmic rays hit the Earth's atmosphere, they collide with air molecules, producing an "air shower" of high energy protons and neutrons and other particles. It is these that Intel wants to look for. If they get near the wrong part of a chip, the electrons they trail can create a digital 1 or 0 out of nowhere, something called a "soft error". Computer giant IBM thoroughly investigated the problem in the mid 90s, testing nearly 1,000 memory devices at sea level, in mountains and in caves. They showed that at higher altitude, more soft errors occurred, while in the caves there were nearly none. That proved cosmic rays were to blame. As RAM chips became more dense, the problem was predicted to get worse. But better designs and error checking techniques have helped, with systems used in planes and spacecraft getting beefed-up error checking because they are at greater risk. But Intel thinks we may still be living on borrowed time:

"Cosmic ray induced computer crashes have occurred and are expected to increase with frequency as devices (for example, transistors) decrease in size in chips. This problem is projected to become a major limiter of computer reliability in the next decade. "
Their patent suggests built-in cosmic ray detectors may be the best option. The detector would either spot cosmic ray hits on nearby circuits, or directly on the detector itself. When triggered, it could activate error-checking circuits that refresh the nearby memory, repeat the most recent actions, or ask for the last message from outside circuits to be sent again. But if cosmic ray detectors make it into desktops, would we get to know when they find something? It would be fun to suddenly see a message pop up informing a cosmic ray had been detected. I haven't seen any recent figures on how often they happen, but back in 1996 IBM estimated you would see one a month for every 256MB of RAM. Perhaps it could even be useful to astronomers, if everyone shared that data, like this idea to use hard-drive wobbles to monitor earthquakes. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare Get paid $7.50 for reviewing my post Ad Space

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