Is stochastic thermodynamics the key to understanding the energy costs of computation?


The relationship between the thermodynamic and computational characteristics of dynamical physical systems has been a major theoretical interest since at least the 19th century, and has been of increasing practical importance as the energetic cost of digital devices has exploded over the last half century. One of the most important thermodynamic features of real-world computers is that they operate very far from thermal equilibrium, in finite time, with many quickly (co-)evolving degrees of freedom. Such computers also must almost always obey multiple physical constraints on how they work. For example, all modern digital computers are periodic processes, governed by a global clock. Another example is that many computers are modular, hierarchical systems, with strong restrictions on the connectivity of their subsystems. This properties hold both for naturally occurring computers, like brains or Eukaryotic cells, as well as digital systems. These features of real-world computers are absent in 20th century analyses of the thermodynamics of computational processes, which focused on quasi-statically slow processes. However, the field of stochastic thermodynamics has been developed in the last few decades - and it provides the formal tools for analyzing systems that have exactly these features of real-world computers. We argue here that these tools, together with other tools currently being developed in stochastic thermodynamics, may help us understand at a far deeper level just how the fundamental physical properties of dynamic systems are related to the computation that they perform.

Brenda Rubenstein
Brenda Rubenstein
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics