John Armitage on Fri, 4 Feb 2000 20:18:20 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> FW: Atomic-Scale Computing Closer : Los Angeles Times

-----Original Message-----
From: Cyber Society [] 
Sent: Friday, February 04, 2000 9:29 AM
To: Cyber Society
Subject: Atomic-Scale Computing Closer : Los Angeles Times

Cyber Society -

Date:  Feb 03 2000 14:07:49 EST  
From:  "John Armitage" <>  
Subject:  Atomic-Scale Computing Closer  

Atomic-Scale Computing Closer 

Technology: IBM shows how circuitry millions of times smaller thantoday's
may be achieved. 


IBM physicists announced a breakthrough today that demonstrates
atomic-scale circuitry--millions of times smaller than today's computer
microprocessors--is feasible, and may eventually render modern electronic
circuitry obsolete. 
If futurists prove correct, this nanotechnology will ultimately pack the
power of a supercomputer into a device so small that they could be woven
into garments powered by body heat, or injected into a person's
bloodstream as super-intelligent diagnostic probes. It may also create
computers that would never need to be plugged in and carry batteries that
would never run out of power. 

It may be many years before devices built around nanotechnology exist. But
experts view the research as a critical step toward understanding how
computers with millions, or even billions, of times more processing power
that is known today might ultimately work. The findings are also seen as
important for applying the science of nanotechnology, in which machines
are built atom by atom, to practical purposes. 

"Two or three years ago people said this is just a bunch of utopian
scientists" promoting nanotechnology, said Paul Saffo, a director of the
Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Menlo Park, Calif. "It's
no longer a question of if it's possible, but when it's practical." 

The IBM team has demonstrated that a molecular atomic-level circuit can
work. The next key step, their scientists said, will be to develop ways to
move this information as fast as computers do now. 

But their research, dubbed "quantum mirage" by the IBM scientists,
demonstrates that information can travel through solid substances without
the benefit of wires. 

This would be a drastic change from today's microprocessors, the brains of
most computerized devices, which require substantial electrical power to
operate. Experts believe that nanotechnology processing would require only
minute amounts of electrical power. 

If today's microprocessors are replaced by nanotechnology, it would
require a complete rethinking of what computers can be used for because
new devices could be made infinitely small, yet infinitely powerful. 

Just as solid state transistors transformed earlier computers from
room-sized behemoths into hand-held marvels, nanotechnology could create a
super-intelligent, yet microscopic, devices, according to Eric Drexler,
author of "Engines of Creation," a seminal book on nanotechnology. 

Some scientists believe that decades from now nanotechnology will usher in
an era of ubiquitous computing in which everyday objects will have
profound intelligence and the ability to anticipate and adjust to human

Those days, should they ever arrive, are still far away. But the IBM
experiment, which appears today as the cover story in the scientific
journal Nature, may have moved them closer. The research was led by
scientist Donald Eigler at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose. 

"What's new is the deliberate construction, atom by atom, of a device that
has remote sensing capabilities," said Eric Heller, professor of physics
at Harvard University. "That's something of a watershed." 

No one has come up with a scheme to make commercially viable atomic-scale
devices. But the IBM study uncovers new information about the control of
the electrical properties of individual atoms, making it "useful and
important for exploring this possibility," said Michael Crommie, a
professor of physics at UC Berkeley who formerly worked with Eigler at

Conventional integrated circuit boards, packed with silicon chips, require
a lot of power because they lose so much power as heat dissipates mostly
through wiring within microprocessors. This leads to drained batteries and
the need for noisy cooling fans, among other problems. The IBM study
proves that information can be transferred without wires, and therefore
without heat. 

There may be some heat generated in the use of atomic-scale circuits, said
Eigler, though it would be minute compared to the power requirements of
today's microelectronic components. 

In their experiment, the IBM scientists used a scanning-tunneling
microscope, a device that can measure and move individual atoms. 

The scientists demonstrated an atomic-scale circuit by building on a sheet
of copper an elliptical ring of pointy cobalt atoms--about 20 nanometers
in length (one nanometer measures about 40 billionths of an inch). When
they placed an additional cobalt atom inside the ellipse, it transmitted a
"mirage" or faint duplicate, of that atom's electrical state to appear at
a second point within the ring. 

The effect was similar to the behavior of waves of sound, such as "whisper
spots" in elliptical rooms where sound carries unusually well. For
example, a whisper at one end of the Old House of Representatives Chamber
in the U.S. Capitol can be clearly heard at the other end. 

So instead of information traveling as it now does through wiring on
microchips, it might one day instead travel via an atom's electrical

By moving the cobalt atoms around, scientists can turn the mirage on or
off--effectively transmitting information such as a "0" or a "1," the
basic structure of all digital data now used by computers. 

This experiment proves that nanoscale circuits can be built without wires,
but mass production of such circuits would be impractical with today's

"What we found is a pathway to be investigated," Eigler said. "You've got
to crawl before you can dance. We just started crawling in another

No one knows when such atomic-scale circuits could be operated at the
speed of normal computer chips, though Eigler thinks it may be possible
within five years. 

"To get from there to a viable technology that can be manufactured and put
on the market still requires so many steps that it would be inappropriate
to estimate when or if this will come to the marketplace," he cautioned. 

Eigler's work is part of a revival of IBM research. Once at the forefront
of many of the industry's breakthroughs, the company's financial weakness
in the early 1990s forced drastic cutbacks in its vaunted labs. 

But in the last few years, as IBM's fortunes have improved, so has the
output of its research staff, now the largest of any corporation. In the
last two years it pioneered new semiconductor technologies, established a
new record for miniaturizing data-storage drives, and was awarded a record
number of patents. 

"They have a serious commitment to research that is unlikely to pay off in
practical consequences in the career lifelines of those doing the
research. That's as basic as its gets," said Saffo. 


To unsubscribe, write to
466MHZ PC for ONLY $449! Get your PowerSpecPC 4610 with Intel Celeron
466MHz, 4GB-HD, 40XMaxCD-ROM, 56KModem, All for $449! Add 17 in.
Monitor & Printer for only $209 (after MIR). MEI-Micro Center,
America's Source for Computer Products since 1986! For details or call 1-888-480-4895 (Please Use
ValueCode: PSEM005).

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: