back to article Chinese go beyond binary with ternary molecule

Scientists in Singapore and Taiwan have developed an organic molecule which can have three electrically-readable states, making a ternary rather than binary device possible. Binary devices have two electrically readable states, corresponding to a one or zero. Ternary devices have three: zero, one or two. Consequently they …


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  1. GhostSeven
    Thumb Up

    Russians did this in the 50's?

    Did the Russians not do this in the 50's (vastly different technology)

    Reminded me of an old Computer Science lecturer tell us all about this.

  2. Christian Berger

    Ternary not a problem

    Even today, Ternary systems are widely used in combination with binary ones. For example the UK0 Interface of German phoneline uses a Ternary voltage levels to transmit binary signals.

    So essentially a final product probably would have binary connections, but convert that to ternary internally.

    1. Lou Gosselin

      Existing software could still work

      In theory, the trinary nature of RAM/CPU wouldn't have to affect software.

      Most software we write these days don't care about number bases at all.

      It would be reasonable to run existing Java applications in base 3.

      The whole x86 architecture could be ported to base 3 internally such that the software doesn't see the difference.

      Certain opcodes, such as SHL, ROR, which are base 2 would be less efficient, but still possible on a base 3 (or base 6) machine.

      Mind you, keeping the x86 architecture alive is a terrible waste of man power.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not all that new, I think


    There's no need to change your infrastructure. You need a whole layer of error-correcting logic anyway so making that logic convert ternary to binary doesn't even make it much more complicated, I would guess.

  4. Steen Hive
    Thumb Up

    No chance

    "Don't expect a ternary iPad in your lifetime. Sorry!"

    Like tri-state data would ever get past the T & C!

  5. The BigYin





  6. chr0m4t1c

    Does that mean

    I'll have to learn my powers of three now?

    We'll need to re-write some of the old jokes too:

    There are 10 types of people in the world. Those that understand ternary, those that understand binary and those that don't.

    Can't help feeling it loses something in translation.

    1. Craig Chambers

      Does that mean... 11 shurely??

      As you've added another state there's another outcome...

      There are 11 types of people in the world. Those that understand ternary, those that understand binary, those that understand both and those that understand neither.

      Which is a truly awful mess of a geek joke ;-)

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Already done...

      There are 10 types of people in this world: those who've heard of ternary, those who haven't, and a million jobbing codemonkeys who think "hur, hur - it's funny 'cos it's binary".

    3. William Towle

      Re: Does That Mean...

      Nobody writes jokes in base 3

  7. Tim Cockburn

    Maybe its a marxist thing?

    According to 'Mike Hally-Electronic Brains' the Russians had a ternary computer in the 1950's using core store

    1. Neil Stansbury


      Bloody Marxists - always trying to be a bit better.

  8. Geoff Johnson

    What do we call it?

    If a Binary digIT is a BIT, what's a Ternary digIT going to be called?

    1. Soap Distant
      Thumb Up

      @What do we call it?

      Superb :)

      And we have 3 states for Yes, No and Maybe.

      1. Martin Huizing
        Paris Hilton

        How 'bout this?

        Yes, No and Fuck it

        Paris 'cause she is a 'bit' more!

    2. Anonymous Coward

      So what if you have a 1048576 of them?

      Just askin.

    3. Lionel Baden

      New Keyboard

      Seriously dont worry about it, it needed replacing anyway

      Thank you for that comment !!!

    4. Pete 8

      They could call it a


  9. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Long March Computerisation for Massive Collective and Subjective Objective Control*

    "It's very interesting science, but the entire binary computing infrastructure would have to alter to use it."

    However, a little tweaking of ternary would render the entire binary computing infrastructure a capture to its proprietary instructions/System Wipes and ReWrites.

    * for Virtually Advanced Post Modernist Confucianism and CyberIntelAIgent Taoism.

    And bet against that if you want to walk naked as a J.

  10. bobdevis
    Thumb Down

    Will never happen

    Nobody is going to run 3-logic computers. Not now, not in a 1000 years.

    Even if some development makes 3-logic hardware attractive, it would be WAY WAY easier to just ignore and remove the 3rd state then to deal with 3-logic.

    By the time someone comes up with a good 3-logic design, there will be a faster 2-logic machine, making 3-logic forever obsolete.

    4-logic or 8-logic might be nice though.....

    1. Danny 14

      not quite

      maybe not for large applications such as PC's but there are smaller applications that would benefit. I thought ternary was traditionally balanced i.e. -1 0 and 1 anyway so a ternary system could always be backwards compatible (by ignoring the sign). Code could be compressed to use ternary making the negative bit negligible - an instant saving in memory for common storage.

    2. JonP

      not electrical anyway

      one of the limitiations of binary based electronics is how fast you can switch between "1" & "0" voltage levels and still accurately tell what you had (against noise). I imagine any gain from using ternary bits would be lost in speed, plus the associated logic would need to be more complex - almost getting towards old analogue electronics!

      still, nice to see the Chinese trying to develop new stuff.

  11. Torben Mogensen

    Ternary logic

    For storage, you can use two ternary "trits" to store three bits (with one unused combination).

    Ternary logic could also be used for asynchronous binary logic, which has three natural states: 0, 1 and not ready.

    But I doubt we will see ternary numbers replace binary numbers in computers.

  12. Anonymous Coward

    Not munching 3 bits

    Ternary only means munching 1.585 bits (ln(3)/ln(2)) per cell.

    Put another way: to store the equivalent of 64 bits, you would need 41 of these ternary cells.

    (3^40 < 2^64 < 3^41)

    1. Eddie Edwards
      Thumb Up


      El Reg does it again! Indeed, a ternary digit is not three bits. Three bits is an octal digit.

      A ternary digit is, of course, called a tit.

  13. Tom Cooke

    Ternary? Trinary!

    Robert Heinlein used this idea in his novels, calling it 'trinary' - instead of one and zero, his scheme had values zero, 'unit' and 'pair'. He also proposed that future storage should be on a 'tell-you-three-times' basis (or 'tell-you-six-times' for really critical info - reminds me of Arthur C Clarke's Ramans). Though I think that Heinlein got the 'tell-me-three-times' from Edward Lear ('what I tell you three times is true')?

  14. notchas

    " ...munches three bits"

    Oh no it doesn't!

    What do you mean the panto season's over?

  15. Tinal

    22 = 9

    In a ternary system wouldn't it be "There are 02 types of people in this world, those who know ternary, those who don't, and a bunch of really confused nerds."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Congratulations on being the first person to get it right.

      There are 2 types of people in this world, those that do understand ternary, those that think they understand ternary and those that don't.

      The joke still works.

    2. Sir Runcible Spoon


      Shouldn't that be 22 = 8 ? 9 being 100 ?


    3. easyk

      truth table

      decimal, binary, ternary

      0, 0, 0

      1, 1, 1

      2, 10, 02

      3, 11, 10

      hope this helps.

  16. andy gibson

    Futurama's Bender

    was ternary.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Bollocks! In "Fry and the Slurm Facrory" Fry's 'see through things' torch (I seem to recall it was a z-ray?) clearly shows that bender runs on a 6502.

    2. M Gale

      Re: Futurama's Bender

      Nah, I think he was just drunk.

  17. Havin_it


    With their fondness for all things in threes, I bet the Martians have had these from the beginning.

    ...and De La Soul, of course.

  18. Derek Jones
    Thumb Up

    Base-4 is good enough for humans

    Base-3 is closest to the most efficient encoding representation which is base 2.718..., but fractional bases are not possible in practice. Heat dissipation is a major problem for chip designers and base-3 would enable them to use a lot fewer components (assuming the power consumption of a base-3 device was comparable to a base-2 device), so there could be a major cost/performance incentive in years to come to use base-3 devices.

    Us human are are derived from a base-4 encoding, i.e., DNA.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Derek Jones

      "Base-3 is closest to the most efficient encoding representation which is base 2.718"

      Not sure how you can prove e is the most efficient coding representation but (on paper) at least number systems based on non integer bases *are* possible. You might like to browse the back issues of the J. American Mathematical Association. A key issue for a viable number system is weather it can *uniquely * convert a decimal number into its number base and back without ambiguity.

      Mine will be the one with some photocopies in it.

      1. BlueGreen

        @John Smith 19

        > Not sure how you can prove e is the most efficient coding representation ...

        The inestimable Hacker's Delight covers that IIRC (outstanding book, a real eye opener). Another link is wiki, where else <>

        > ...number systems based on non integer bases *are* possible

        and negative nums. Maths teacher, a long time ago, tried to show us how to count in minus ten. Wiki link? Certainly <>.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Snarky response to Tom Cooke

    Unless Carroll pinched it from Lear, "What I tell you three times is true." first appeared

    in "The Hunting of the Snark".

    1. Confuciousmobil


      Wasn't there some story in that Bible book about "Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." - I always thought that came first and inspired the other two.

      Anyway, I'm off Snark hunting now....

  20. 3si

    timing and decimal values?

    Ternary could never replace binary as traditional timing circuits avoid certain frequencies and timings (e.g. 10Hz / .1s) as they cannot be accurately stored as binary numbers - much like 1/3 in decimal. When you introduce base 3 timing, you eliminate most of the frequencies in use today.

  21. BlueGreen

    trinary computer's been done long time ago

    so I believe. I understand that the optimal base is e (2.718...) and given that a church dude settled on trinary to account for his alms payments to the poor, apparently building a wooden 'computer' (this would be very pre-20th century) that used trinary. I understand there's very little record of this thing.

    useful root link <> gets you to radix economy etc.

    And bless wiki, here's the wooden pooter ref <>

  22. IR

    I for one

    welcome our tripod-legged overlords.

  23. Richard Jukes


    Im sure it will find a use in AI :-)

  24. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    What I tell you three times is true (why?)

    "Tell you three times" is Lewis Carroll, [The Hunting of the Snark]. Probably online. Stated, never justified. However, the Space Shuttle has at least three computers that have to agree on navigation et cetera.

    "0, 1 and not ready" is feminine logic (ducks)

    I think Star Trek had three-state computers, or maybe I'm thinking of something else, such as James Blish's adapted stories. They had duotronics which evidently was electronics with knobs on, they had brand-new multitronics which was the subject of "The Ultimate Computer" and didn't go well at all, but they also had tricorders.

    How do you do parity with trits?

    1. Ammaross Danan


      "What I tell you three times is true (why?)"

      One computer may get it wrong. Of two computers, one may get it wrong, but you wouldn't know which. With three computers, the correct answer wins by popular vote. The chance of a rare-as-it-is fluke of getting it wrong in the first place, TWICE, is an "acceptible margin of error." (most likely in the realm of <0.0000000000001%).

      Why do you think any kind of true vote-based system uses odd numbers? There will always be a tie-breaker vote, since "yea" or "nay" is binary after all.

  25. Stewart Haywood

    Nothin New

    Thomas fowler built a wooden calculating machine using balanced ternary in 1840.

    Someone has built a copy recently, see:

    Strangely, the machine appears in a stained glas window at St. Michael’s Church in Torrington, Devon.

    I believe the Russians tried ternary machines in a university sometime in the late 1950's.

  26. This post has been deleted by its author

  27. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Trinary used for chip design

    IIRC (Electronics Weekly/Electronics Times mid 80s) either or both Ferranti and GEC did some chip designs, especially for gate arrays, using some kind of 3 level logic. Think it *might* have some links into Current Mode Logic, a cousin of ECL for V.high speed logic apps at lower power.

    3 levels meant you could use fewer gates to do the same function. Handy if you have tight limits on number of gates per chip and each gate is pretty thirsty in the current department.

    should this 8ever* get out of the lab it would give the same benefits in terms of simplified manufacturing (fewer "gates" to lay down and connect).


  28. Astarte

    No enough states

    Keep increasing the number of values that can be carried on a single conductor and you'll end up with a new computing concept - maybe call it Analogue (or Analog for those that can't spell). For specific applications they are still much faster than any digital solutions yet invented.

    Mine's the one with the patch cords haning out of the pocket.

    1. OldDogNewWalk
      Paris Hilton

      I majored in Analogue Computing

      but switched(!) to Digital as soon as possible. Hell of a lot easier to control the noise figure.

      Jesus, am I really THAT old!

      Paris, just to be noisome.

  29. John Savard

    Radix False Economy

    As already noted, it would need eight states to be equivalent to three bits, a storage element with three states being equivalent to log(3)/log(2) bits. But in practice, radix economy, where the cost of a digit is assumed to be proportional to the number of states the digit may assume, isn't a realistic concept. Binary circuitry is vastly simpler to achieve in electronics than any other kind.

    1. William Towle

      Re: Radix False Economy

      "Binary circuitry is vastly simpler to achieve in electronics than any other kind."

      Citation needed. AFAICT existing theory and prior experience tells us a) "the advantages of the proposed memory circuit are capability of high speed computation, low power consumption and very simple construction with less number of elements due to the ternary operation"; b) "[Setun's] replacement binary computer performed equally well, [but] the device was still 2.5 times as expensive"

      This is cool.



    2. Torben Mogensen

      Re: Radix False Economy

      "But in practice, radix economy, where the cost of a digit is assumed to be proportional to the number of states the digit may assume, isn't a realistic concept. Binary circuitry is vastly simpler to achieve in electronics than any other kind."

      If you use different voltages to represent different states, this is certainly true. Even more so, since changing voltage costs energy proportional to the square of the voltage change, ternary logic would use more energy even if the number of trits is smaller than the number of bits.

      However, if you use systems that naturally have three states, this might change. This may or may not be the case for the gate mentioned in the article, but there are physical phenomena that naturally has three different possible values, for example is quark colour. Whether or not these are practical for logical gates is another matter, though.

      Another place where ternary logic may be worthwhile is in continuous systems where the possible values correspond to points on a circle: Distinguishing three points on the circle is not much more complicated than distinguishing two opposing points, and due to symmetry, these points are equidistant (unlike three points on a line, which is the problem with using voltage to represent ternary logic). Circular state spaces occur in, for example, phases of signals or polarisation of light. Whether you can make practical switches based on these is another matter, though, but I wouldn't rule it out.

  30. asdf

    hmm interesting

    Don't get me wrong there is much to dislike and fear about the China (especially their government) but at least they are contributing to science (probably not more than they are stealing but hey). China is a bit of a threat to the west but to be honest unlike the crazy middle east (and their almost complete lack of science contribution in last 500 years (except for Israel of course)) the people seem to enjoy the material good life as much as us. As long as a culture enjoys Brad Pitt and James Cameron flicks they probably won't be in a rush to destroy us.

  31. Daniel B.

    The Daily WTF

    I think I know what this can be used for. The now-famous TDWTF BOOL implementation:




    can now be represented at the register level!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You need 4 states

      Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail

  32. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    The Ping Dynasty .... with CNetworking Immaculate Server Protocols

    "As long as a culture enjoys Brad Pitt and James Cameron flicks they probably won't be in a rush to destroy us." ...... asdf Posted Friday 16th April 2010 21:29 GMT

    Cultures into Enjoyment are into Harvesting and Seeding Nature and not into Grooming Destruction, asdf. Is that China IDd in a Sentence? And Western culture cruelly exposed in a couple of words?

    1. Youngone Silver badge
      Thumb Up


      Thats a real amanfromMars post that is. Its got the lot: a quote from an unrelated article, and a comment that looks like it was tranlated from Urdu via Albanian or something.

      Keep up the good work.

  33. MonkeyBot

    Keep it quiet...

    ...and we can use the secret third state to hide our porn.

  34. Adrian Bool

    Memory sandwich molecule does not munch three bits!

    Referencing the subtitle for the post...

    Three bits can represent eight states; the Chinese device only three!

  35. Anonymous Coward

    Oh no!

    As if I didn't get tripped up enough by the difference between MB and MiB and Mb and GB and GiB and ...

    Where will counting in threes lead us?

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