Computing in today’s world is mainly digital, with electronic circuits manipulating binary digits – 0s and 1s. But analog computing, which operates using continuous data, has been used for centuries to understand the natural world.

Analog computers like the Antikythera mechanism from ancient Greece and slide rules have been crucial in predicting events like eclipses and tides. These devices were physical systems designed to follow mathematical equations that govern natural phenomena. For example, William Thomson’s tide-predicting computer used shafts and pulleys to model the influence of celestial bodies on tides, based on complex trigonometric expressions.

The differential analyzer, developed by Vannevar Bush in 1931, was a pinnacle of analog computing. It could solve differential equations accurately using gears and shafts. However, the advent of digital computing in the late 1930s brought more efficiency and accuracy. Digital computers were easier to program and maintain, leading to their widespread adoption.

Despite the benefits of digital computing, it comes with significant energy costs. Each digital bit switch consumes energy, and complex systems like artificial intelligence require massive amounts of computing power. For instance, plans for a $100 billion data center by Microsoft and OpenAI could consume 5 gigawatts of power, equivalent to five nuclear reactors’ output.

Analog computing offers a sustainable alternative to digital processing, especially in the realm of artificial intelligence. By using electrical signals and carefully designed circuits, analog computers can perform multiplication and addition operations with significant energy savings. Researchers are now looking back at analog computing to pave the way for a more sustainable computational future.

As technology advances, it’s essential to consider the environmental impact of our digital systems. Analog computing presents a promising solution to reduce energy consumption and address the growing demands of modern technology. By combining the best of both analog and digital worlds, we can create a more efficient and sustainable future for computing.