In the relatively near future, some of the most advanced computers in the world might do their best work when guessing.

Lyric Semiconductor, a startup out of MIT, wants to develop a series of chips that will solve problems by applying principles of probability. To solve a Sudoku puzzle, for instance, a regular computer will examine every single combination of numbers to determine the correct answer.  By contrast, a computer with Lyric’s GP5 chips might consider a few puzzle strategies and intuitively derive an answer.

Lyric’s chip will not have examined all of the permutations, but it will likely come up with the same answer. And it will use less time and far less energy in the process.

The probability versus precision debate, which has gone on since the 18th century, is part of a larger question about the future of computing in an energy-challenged world. Computers in some ways represent  the ultimate good news/bad news story when it comes to power.

First, the good news: IT equipment only gobbles up around 2 percent of the world’s energy.  Not only is the total somewhat small -- lights consume nearly six times as much energy in U.S. office buildings than PC -- but that two percent plays an instrumental role in reducing overall energy consumption.

Now for the bad news: Computers also represent one of the fastest growing segments in power consumption. Owners of large data centers are being told by their local utilities that they can’t get more power. To stay in business, they have to start computing more efficiently or shrink their ambitions.

So what do you do? N Computing and others argue that thin clients -- once you get past the shame of owning a terminal -- let you do your job on a watt or two of power. DC power, used to curb conversions, is coming. SeaMicro and Calxeda, meanwhile, are building servers with hundreds of chips similar to those found in cell phones. 

But wait -- haven’t companies tried this in the past? Well, yes. We literally don’t know which, if any, of these innovations will succeed in the market.

What’s your guess?

Read more on this topic in a joint effort by General Electric ecomagination and Greentech Media, and join in on the conversation here.