At H.P., the scientist who has led the quest for the new generation of ultrasmall switches, known as memristors, said that their arrival foretells a computing age of discovery that will parallel the productivity increases first brought about by the microprocessor.

“The thing that is happening right now is that we’re drowning in data,” said Stan Williams, director of H.P.’s Information and Quantum Systems Lab. “The amount of data is increasing at an absolutely ferocious pace, and unless we can catch up it will remain useless.”

If he is right, and the memristor makes possible superdense computing memories — one computer chip will hold as much data as an entire disk drive holds today.

Forecasting what this next-order-of-magnitude increase will mean is impossible, but it’s easy to see what the last one created: entire new product categories — digital music players, cameras and cellphones.