Micro-Electronics Will Eventually be Superseded by Biological Scale Devices


Why Our Brave New Future is Getting Smaller and Smaller
by Nathan Cochrane

Source: Information Technology

November 24, 2000

CULPRITS we cannot see will have a big impact on our world of the near future. In the next 10 to 15 years, "the wall" of micro-electronics will be superseded by devices on the biological scale.

A computer that processes trillions of times faster than every computer ever made combined. Butterfly wings used for color displays. Semiconductors that make themselves on your desktop. Nanoscopic powders that soak up oil spills. Artificial muscles that control machinery. Paint that displays moving images. Reprintable paper.


Australian researchers are working in broadly allied disciplines to pole vault over American, Japanese and European competitors. But as always, a lack of funding from private and public purses could stymie Australia's biggest potential industry.

In the United States, President Bill Clinton devoted $500 million to primary research into nanotechnology - much of which will be spent to mimic Australia's CSIRO multi-disciplinary approach, says researcher Dr Vijoleta Braach-Maksvytis.

A co-inventor of the biosensor, a device for finding things in a biological environment, Braach-Maksvytis sees universes of possibilities in a petrie dish. She advocates the establishment of a nanotechnology network to bring together Australian researchers and developments.

Braach-Maksvytis says we should leave it to nature to do the prototyping for us - after all, it has several billion years already invested.

Just as man learned to fly by watching birds, so we can develop faster, cheaper and cleaner processes by imitating biology.

"Our current research cannot deliver on all those demands," Braach-Maksvytis says.

"We're hitting the wall and there's no idea how to get around it.

"Nature's worked out a lot of the problems we're grappling with."

Braach-Maksvytis says the top-down approach of assembling devices from big building blocks will be supplanted by self-assembly at the atomic scale.

"Nature works from the bottom-up - take a handful of ingredients, fats and DNA, add a pinch of salt and water you have us, trees and scallops," she says.

"Looking at nature for the fabrication method can do away with a lot of the problems we face." Braach-Maksvytis envisages a world where semiconductors assemble themselves on a desktop, where ultra-high resolution color displays are modelled on butterfly feathers, and carbon dioxide is eaten by artificial photosynthetic devices. A world where deep space research would take a quantum leap forward with self-assembling antennas used in satellite dishes, and DNA could be used as wire - "those molecules can form a gorgeous variety of structures ... for computing".

Quantum computing researcher Dr Michelle Simmons says we are only a few years from developing a computer that processes faster than every computer in existence. It could compute problems that would take today's computers longer than the lifespan of the planet.

Today's computers, based on 50-year-old architecture, consist of lots of switches that are either on or off. Quantum computers have an uncanny ability to be in many states at once - on, off, and kind of on - so they compute very much faster.

Simmons, the Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, says programming quantum computers will require a similar radical shift in thinking. Software toolkits may lag behind hardware.

She says current micro-scale technology has about 20 years before it comes to a screeching halt.

Quantum computers have applications in computing weather patterns and genetic engineering. But the change will be as profound as the introduction of the silicon chip, Simmons says.

"In a classical computer, power grows linearly. In the quantum world ... every time you add a Q(uantum)-Bit you're doubling power," she says.

Simmons' group will spend the next five years developing a two Q-Bit computer that can be scaled indefinitely to bigger systems.

She says a 30 Q-Bit computer - more powerful than today's most powerful supercomputer - could be developed within the next 20 years. Scientists are even talking about a million Q-Bit computer, she says.

Casting a weather eye over the warm glow of optimism is associate professor John Weckert, from Charles Sturt University. The applied ethics researcher says "we're crazy if we don't draw on the last 2000 years of philosophy" as a guide.

Weckert sees privacy problems becoming "more prolific" as data mining becomes accelerated through the use of quantum computers. Monitoring and surveillance of citizens through sensors embedded subcutaneously and tracked by satellite is a real possibility. Advances in prosthetics may mean we become more machine and less human, he says.

"There's the potential for these particular issues becoming more severe as computers become smarter and smarter and faster and faster," Weckert says.

"If we have all sorts of other devices implanted in us we may not know what is human."

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