I've made no secret of my admiration for IBM
Yesterday, Big Blue announced yet another research project that might not initially seem to have much relevance to its business. But if you scratch below the surface, I believe you'll see some potential.
The program is a collaboration with Astron, a European astronomy organization, to design a new microprocessor that will help antennas collect weak radio signals from outer space.
To understand why scientists need new computer chips to do this, it is first necessary to understand that these signals have been traveling from the edge of the universe for some 13 billion years.
The problem is that, after this long journey, these signals are so weak that even today's most sophisticated computer chips generate so much background noise that "space noise" is difficult, if not impossible, to decipher.
IBM began working on a chip in October to overcome this problem, and it hopes to have a working prototype by the middle of next year. In the interest of science, I hope Big Blue is successful. But for IBM investors, this is the type of research that could also pay dividends.
Companies such as Intel
Much of this data is easily picked up by existing chips, but I suspect that there will be some cases -- such as security applications or diagnosing early signs of equipment malfunction -- where it might be useful to separate out weak but important signals from much of the other noise that is being generated.
As an added benefit, IBM consultants might even be able to access or interpret this data to provide clients with meaningful value-added services.
Who knows? If IBM is successful, the chips could even find another, larger audience. Just as hundreds of thousands of people have chosen to allow their home computers to search the universe for signs of intelligent life through the SETI@Home program, they might also be inclined to let their chips be used (in their free time) by scientists in their quest to listen in -- and possibly decipher -- the origins of the Big Bang.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich just wants a potato chip that can cure the faint noises rumbling from his tummy . He owns stock in IBM. Intel is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.