Software can transform a computer from a word processor to a number cruncher to a video telephone. But the underlying hardware is unchanged. Now, a type of transistor that can be switched with magnetism instead of electricity could make circuitry malleable too, leading to more efficient and reliable gadgets, from smart phones to satellites.
Transistors, the simple switches at the heart of all modern electronics, generally use a tiny voltage to toggle between ‘on’ and ‘off’. The voltage approach is highly reliable and easy to miniaturize, but has its disadvantages. First, keeping the voltage on requires power, which drives up the energy consumption of the microchip. Second, transistors must be hard-wired into the chips and can’t be reconfigured, which means computers need dedicated circuitry for all their functions.