Binary, Floats, and Modern Computers

I have been reading a lot about floats and computer-processed floating-point operations. The biggest question I see when reading about them is why are they so inaccurate? I understand this is because binary cannot accurately represent all real numbers, so the numbers are rounded to the 'best' approximation.

My question is, knowing this, why do we still use binary as the base for computer operations? Surely using a larger base number than 2 would increase the accuracy of floating-point operations exponentially, would it not?

What are the advantages of using a binary number system for computers as opposed to another base, and has another base ever been tried? Or is it even possible?


Computers are built on transistors, which have a "switched on" state, and a "switched off" state. This corresponds to high and low voltage. Pretty much all digital integrated circuits work in this binary fashion.

Ignoring the fact that transistors just simply work this way, using a different base (e.g. base 3) would require these circuits to operate at an intermediate voltage state (or several) as well as 0V and their highest operating voltage. This is more complicated, and can result in problems at high frequencies - how can you tell whether a signal is just transitioning between 2V and 0V, or actually at 1V?

When we get down to the floating point level, we are (as nhahtdh mentioned in their answer) mapping an infinite space of numbers down to a finite storage space. It's an absolute guarantee that we'll lose some precision. One advantage of IEEE floats, though, is that the precision is relative to the magnitude of the value.

Update: You should also check out Tunguska, a ternary computer emulator. It uses base-3 instead of base-2, which makes for some interesting (albeit mind-bending) concepts.

First of all: You cannot represent all real numbers even when using say, base 100. But you already know this. Anyway, this means: Inaccuracy will always arise due to 'not being able to represent all real numbers'.

Now lets talk about "what can higher bases bring to you when doing math?": Higher bases bring exactly 'nothing' in terms of precision. Why?

If you want to use base 4, then a 16 digit base 4 number provides exactly 416 different values.

But you can get the same number of different values from a 32 digit base 2 number (232 = 416).

As another answer already said: Transistors can either be on or off. So your newly designed base 4 registers need to be an abstraction over (base 2) ON/OFF 'bits'. This means: Use two 'bits' to represent a base 4 digit. But you'll still get exactly 2N levels by spending N 'bits' (or N/2 base-4 digits). You can only get better accuracy by spending more bits, not by increasing the base. Which base you 'imagine/abstract' your numbers to be in (e.g. like how printf can print these base-2 numbers in base-10) is really just a matter of abstraction and not precision.

We are essentially mapping a finite space to an infinite set of real number. So it is not even a problem of base anyway.

Base 2 is chosen, like Polynomial said, for implementation reason, as it is easier to differentiate 2 levels of energy.

We either throw more space to represent more numbers/increase precision, or limit the range that we want to encode, or a mix of them.

It boils out to getting the most from available chip area.

If you use on/off switches to represent numbers, you can't get more precision per switch than with a base-2 representation. This is simply because N switches can represent 2^N quantities no matter what you choose these values to be. There were early machines that used base 16 floating point digits, but each of these needed 4 binary bits, so the overall precision per bit was the same as base 2 (actually somewhat less due to edge cases).

If you choose a base that's not a power of 2, precision is obviously lost. For example you need 4 bits to represent one decimal digit, but 6 of the available values of those 4 bits are never used. This system is called binary-coded decimal and it's still used occassionally, usually when doing computations with money.

Multi-level logic could efficiently implement other bases, but at least with current chip technologies, it turns out to be very expensive to implement more than 2 levels. Even quantum computers are being design assuming two quantum levels: quantum bits or qubits.

The nature of the world and math is what makes the floating point situation hopeless. There is a hierarchy of real numbers Integer -> Rational -> Algebraic -> Transendental. There's a wonderful mathematical proof, Cantor diagonalization, that most numbers, i.e. a "bigger infinity" than the other sets, are Transdendental. Yet no matter what floating point system you choose, there will still be lowly rational numbers with no perfect representation (i.e. 1/3 in base 10). This is our universe. No amount of clever hardware design will change it.

Software can and does use rational representations, storing a numerator and denominator as integers. However with these your programmer's hands are tied. For example, square root is not "closed." Sqrt(2) has no rational representation.

There has been research with algebraic number reps and "lazy" reps of arbitrary reals that produce more digits as needed. Most work of this type seems to be in computational geometry.

Your first paragraph makes sense but the second is a non-sequiter. A larger base would not make a difference to the precision.

The precison of a number depends on the amount of storage that is used for it - for example a 16 bit binary number has the same precision as a 2 x 256 base number - both take up the same amount of information.

See the Usual floating point reference. for more detail - and it generalises to all bases.

Yes computers have been built using other bases - I know of ones that use base 10 (decimal) cf wikipaedia

Yes, there are/have been computers that use other than binary (i.e., other than base 2 representations and aritmetic): Decimal computers.

Designers of computing systems have looked into many alternatives. But it's hard to find a model that's as simple to implement in a physical device than one using two discrete states. So start with a binary circuit that's very easy and cheap to build and work up to a computer with complex operations. That's the history of binary in a nutshell.

I am not a EE, so everything I say below may be totally wrong. But...

The advantage of binary is that it maps very cleanly to distinguishing between on/off (or, more accurately, high/low voltage) states in real circuits. Trying to distinguish between multiple voltages would, I think, present a bit more of a challenge.

This may go completely out the window if quantum computers make it out of the lab.

There are 2 issues arising from the use of binary floating-point numbers to represent mathematical real numbers -- well, there are probably a lot more issues, but 2 is enough for the time being.

  1. All computer numbers are finite so any number which requires an infinite number of digits cannot be accurately represented on a computer, whatever number base is chosen. So that deals with pi, e, and most of the other real numbers.
  2. Whatever base is chosen will have difficulties representing (finitely) some fractions. Base 2 can only approximate any fraction with a factor of 3 in the denominator, but base 5 or base 7 do too.

Over the years computers with circuitry based on devices with more than 2 states have been built. The old Soviet Union developed a series of computers with 3-state devices and at least one US computer manufacturer at one time offered computers using 10-state devices for arithmetic.

I suspect that binary representation has won out (so far) because it is simple, both to reason about and to implement with current electronic devices.

I vote that we move to a Rational number system storage. Two 32 bit intergers that will evaluate as p/q. Multiplication and division will be really cheap operations. Yeah there will be redundant evaluated numbers (1/2 = 2/4), but who really uses the full dynamic range of a 64 bit double anyways.

I'm neither an electrical engineer nor a mathematician, so take that into consideration when I make the following statement:

All floating point numbers can be represented as integers.

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