Reversible Computing - The Reversibility of Physics and Reversible Computing

The Reversibility of Physics and Reversible Computing

Landauer's principle (and indeed, the second law of thermodynamics itself) can also be understood to be a direct logical consequence of the underlying reversibility of physics, as is reflected in the general Hamiltonian formulation of mechanics, and in the unitary time-evolution operator of quantum mechanics more specifically.

In the context of reversible physics, the phenomenon of entropy increase (and the observed arrow of time) can be understood to be consequences of the fact that our evolved predictive capabilities are rather limited, and cannot keep perfect track of the exact reversible evolution of complex physical systems, especially since these systems are never perfectly isolated from an unknown external environment, and even the laws of physics themselves are still not known with complete precision. Thus, we (and physical observers generally) always accumulate some uncertainty about the state of physical systems, even if the system's true underlying dynamics is a perfectly reversible one that is subject to no entropy increase if viewed from a hypothetical omniscient perspective in which the dynamical laws are precisely known.

The implementation of reversible computing thus amounts to learning how to characterize and control the physical dynamics of mechanisms to carry out desired computational operations so precisely that we can accumulate a negligible total amount of uncertainty regarding the complete physical state of the mechanism, per each logic operation that is performed. In other words, we would need to precisely track the state of the active energy that is involved in carrying out computational operations within the machine, and design the machine in such a way that the majority of this energy is recovered in an organized form that can be reused for subsequent operations, rather than being permitted to dissipate into the form of heat.

Although achieving this goal presents a significant challenge for the design, manufacturing, and characterization of ultra-precise new physical mechanisms for computing, there is at present no fundamental reason to think that this goal cannot eventually be accomplished, allowing us to someday build computers that generate much less than 1 bit's worth of physical entropy (and dissipate much less than kT ln 2 energy to heat) for each useful logical operation that they carry out internally.

The motivation behind much of the research that has been done in reversible computing was the first seminal paper on the topic, which was published by Charles H. Bennett of IBM research in 1973. Today, the field has a substantial body of academic literature behind it. A wide variety of reversible device concepts, logic gates, electronic circuits, processor architectures, programming languages, and application algorithms have been designed and analyzed by physicists, electrical engineers, and computer scientists.

This field of research awaits the detailed development of a high-quality, cost-effective, nearly reversible logic device technology, one that includes highly energy-efficient clocking and synchronization mechanisms. This sort of solid engineering progress will be needed before the large body of theoretical research on reversible computing can find practical application in enabling real computer technology to circumvent the various near-term barriers to its energy efficiency, including the von Neumann-Landauer bound. This may only be circumvented by the use of logically reversible computing, due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

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