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Cosmic Rays, Micro-differences, and Virtual Worlds

One of the strangest things you notice with social virtual environments, where you have vast numbers of people coming and going, and using the exact same software to visualise the virtual world, is the sheer number of amazing, unduplicatable-by-anyone-else problems that are encountered.

A room pitch black for one person is fine for everyone else. A downloaded model turns transparent for another individual but fine for everyone else.

One log-in in a thousand, your feet are planted in the ground, and you cannot move. Everything else works, but no movement.

Perhaps the program closes unexpectedly when a particular object is neared - each and every time that object is rendered. Again, for one person only.

These errors and thousands like them, that crop up infrequently and unduplicatable, have been a mystery for many years now. However, Intel Corp. believe they may have found a potential answer.

Distant supernovae, black holes and other cosmic events can cause strange, minor, never-reoccurring errors in a computer system. They are called soft errors, and occur because these stellar events produce cosmic rays, which when they slam into the atmosphere of the planet - which they do, continuously in great numbers - they produce high-energy particles in the atmosphere.

Most of these particles pass through the planet harmlessly, but when they pass through a computer system, they shoot through the processor, or the Ram, or any of a thousand different electronic systems.

The moving particles trail electrons, which alter the electrical signals inside the chips, changing the data and producing errors. A model downloads, and is stored with corrupt data. Light codes are changed. A sudden zip and ground has been reset to the wrong height, data corrupted beyond recovery. Even a client program rendered useless.

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. Back in 1996 IBM estimated that at sea-level you would see one a month for every 256MB of RAM. Since then of course, the density of transistors on trips has grown exponentially even as their size has shrunk. Where before, only one transistor in a chip was affected by a strike, today banks of them have their charges randomised.

Thankfully this problem was foreseen. As RAM chips became more dense, the problem was predicted to get worse. But better designs and error checking techniques have helped.

Intel's 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.

Last December, Intel was awarded a US patent for the idea of building cosmic ray detectors into every chip they produce.

If they do succeed in the creation of a means to pick up these soft errors, and reprocess the data, it may finally mean a lessening of the strange and unpredictable errors in virtual environments and in all complex applications.


Intel's Patent

IBM's Testing

Solutions for Soft Errors in System on Chip Designs

Soft Error

Soft Error - Wikipedia

Staff Comments


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