MALIBU, CALIF—Almost, nothing is visible on the Pacific Ocean this warm, clear day. No boats, no suffers, no swimmers—only waves breaking on the beach. That’s no doubt just fine by Michael J. Little, because there’s enough going on already. In his office high above the Malibu surf, the physicist swivels in his chair and reaches into a drawer to extract what looks like a wooden box for chessmen.

No knights and rooks come spilling out, however. Instead, Little carefully reveals an object—about the size and shape of a small deck of cards—that contains a five-wafer stack of silicon bearing. 1,024 processors. Capable of performing 600 million operations a second, it is a forerunner of the new wave of computer systems called parallel processors, which simultaneously attack the same problem rather than handling it sequentially like conventional linear circuits. But it has another feature that is absolutely unique: It can pass...

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