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The semiconductor industry is edging closer to the world of nanotechnology, where components are miniaturized to the point of individual molecules and atoms.
At this year's International Electron Devices meeting, there will be presentations from NTT DoCoMo engineers that describe transistors that can be switched on and off based on the movement of a single electron, and Lucent Technologies researchers will present a data storage technology concept in which information is stored in an aerosol of floating crystals as small as three nanometers, or three-billionths of a meter, in diameter.
A team of researchers from the University of California will report they have fabricated the smallest chip ever--a 20-nanometer transistor gate--and the Intel Corporation, the world's largest chip maker, plans to announce that it has scaled a transistor down to just 30 nanometers.
Intel said that its new transistor would be so small that a vertical pile of 30 million of the tiny electronic switches would measure only one-inch high.
Such a device will in the next half-decade make it possible to manufacture microprocessors containing more than 400 million transistors, running at 10 gigahertz. the company said.
Currently the most powerful commercial Pentium microprocessor has 42 million transistors and runs at 1.5 gigahertz.
In discussing the new generation of transistors and the microprocessors they will make possible, company officials have said this raw processing power will make possible computer applications that are well beyond the range of today's desktop machines.
"We're accelerating the rate of progress. In fact, we're doubling the rate of progress every decade," declared Raymond Kurzweil in his keynote speech at the Foresight Institute's 8th Molecular Nanotechnology Conference held in the Washington D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, recently. "We are now entering the knee of the exponential growth curve of progress. Therefore we will see what would be at linear rates 100 years of progress in the next 20 to 25 years." Kurzweil is a computer guru who made a pile of money when he founded a leading company in speech recognition technology. He is also author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and, most recently, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999).
His predictions of super-fast progress received a sympathetic hearing at this gathering of around 400 nanotechnologists. That's hardly surprising. Nanotechnology seeks to make things--food, buildings, you name it--at the molecular level. As Ed Regis explained it to Reason readers, "You'd make things by manipulating individual atoms and molecules, working with them one at a time, positioning them precisely, lining them up one by one, repeatedly, until enough of them accumulated to form a large-scale, usable entity such as a car or spaceship, for example. All this would be done automatically, effortlessly, without human hands or labor, by a fleet of tiny, invisible robots. These robots, when they were developed, would do all the world's work: People could sit back and enjoy themselves, drinking their mint juleps in peace and quiet."
"Progress in the 21st century will be 1,000 times greater than in the 20th in terms of technical change," said Kurzweil. Technology, he added, is getting more and more intimate and by the end of the 21st century there will not be a clear distinction between human and machine.
As evidence of accelerating progress, Kurzweil pointed to the recent success in sequencing the human genome. "Fifteen years ago it was a fringe project and some said it would take 10,000 years to finish it. But we went from a cost of $10 to analyze each DNA base pair to something on the order of a penny per base pair in 10 years," he said. Kurzweil also looked at trends in computing, claiming that $1,000 today will buy you computing power that compares to that found in insect and mouse brains. By 2020, that same amount of money will buy computing power comparable to a human brain, and by 2050, it will purchase computing power equal to all human brains. "The 21st century will not lack for computing power," Kurzweil declared.
Kurzweil says computing will disappear by the end of this decade. Images will be written directly on people's retinas from eyeglasses and contacts. Computing will be integrated into our clothing: no more palmtops and laptops, and going to a Web site will mean going to a shared virtual reality environment. Around 2030, we should be able to flood our brains with nanobots that can be turned off and on and which would function as "experience beamers" allowing us to experience the full range of other people's sensory experiences; and if we find ordinary experience too boring, we will have access to archives where more interesting experiences are stored.
Nanobots will also expand human intelligence by factors of thousands or millions. By 2030, nonbiological thinking will be trillions of times more powerful than biological thinking.
To be sure, not everyone is looking forward--or brightly--to this future. Not long ago, Kurzweil sketched his vision for the 21st century over drinks in a Lake Tahoe bar for Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy. How did Joy respond? By writing his infamous article in Wired magazine that humanity must "relinquish" genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics because they are too dangerous. At the nanontech confab, Kurzweil dismissed Joy's call for technological stagnation as "totalitarian." "Relinquishment is utterly infeasible because technological progress is not one thing. It is the result of the activities of thousands of researchers and companies which can't be controlled," explained Kurzweil.
Computing power is only part of the story. Networks really give computers their potent and omnipotent future. We are wrapping our planet in a web of land and undersea cables and wireless systems. Satellites, microwaves, and fiber-optic cables are connecting the planet at extraordinary speed.
If all the optical fiber spreading around the globe could be seen as a single filament, its tip would be advancing at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, or so the engineers at Telstra Research Laboratories suggest.
Each hair-fine fiber is capable of holding, at the moment, about 40 to 60 channels. Each channel can carry 10,000 or more phone calls. Each cable holds 100 or more fibers. This global network, still in its infancy but growing very quickly, allows virtually every computer on earth to talk to its fellows.
Networking--universal connectivity, always there, always on--linking computers of enormous power, produces for Homo sapiens an awesome prospect. In the end we are not talking about a single computer, but an entire planetful.
As ever-more-capable and sophisticated software is built, so the machines become smarter and more involved with one another. This could mean that at some point in the future, computers might decide to deal the human race out of their equation.
The number of passengers carried by airlines around the world increased by 7 percent from April 1999 to April 2000, according to the Geneva-based Airports Council International. In total, more than 264 million people were transported by commercial aircraft around the world in the period, the council said. Passenger traffic in Europe alone jumped 12 percent in the period.
Europe's first commercially available intelligent home, with a front door that opens at the touch of a fingerprint, a fridge that orders the groceries and a robot that mows the lawn, has been unveiled in Sweden.
The three-bedroom £280,000 [$406,000] house, one of six e-homes at Hageberg, an island suburb in the Stockholm archipelago, bristles with automated systems.
If the washing machine springs a leak, the house will phone the owner. Once a plumber has been summoned, the front door can be opened remotely by tapping a PIN code into a cellphone. For security's sake, the PIN code is encrypted and the house checks the number of the cellphone to ensure that the householder is issuing the open door command.
The screenfridge, a refrigerator with a touch sensitive computer screen that acts as the home's nerve center, suggests weekly menus tailored according to personal diet preferences or lifestyle, and then orders the necessary groceries on the Internet. When the delivery is made, the e-home opens the outer door so that perishables can be stored in a fridge freezer until the residents return.
The next version of the screenfridge will also be able to determine which foods are in the fridge by reading radio tags that are replacing bar codes on goods.
"You'll be able to phone your fridge when you're in the supermarket and ask it how much milk you need to buy," said Mikael Klein, project manager for the Electrolux screenfridge. "Radio tags embedded in product packaging will also bring an end to checkout queues. When you walk out of the store, a sensor will detect the contents of your trolley and present you with a bill."
The e-home begins the day by waking its residents with music piped from speakers hidden in the ceiling of each room. Lights switch on automatically as the inhabitants move around and are dimmed according to various "mood" settings controlled by the screenfridge.
Over breakfast, residents can watch television or read electronic newspapers on the screenfridge, or use it to check the weather, public transport timetables or traffic cameras along their route to work. It has a camera of its own so that family members can record the video equivalent of a scribbled note and leave it on the fridge door.
The dishwasher, washing machine, cooker, iron and other appliances are fitted with sensors and remote controls. The house has motion sensors in every room so that it can determine if the owner has left without turning the iron or stove off. It can then send a warning message to their cellphone, asking if they want the appliance switched off.
Motion detectors are used to dim lights and reduce heating and ventilation automatically when nobody is at home, and to alert the owner if anyone breaks in. On hot days, automatic sun blinds, controlled and activated by sunlight and wind speed detectors, extend over the windows to keep the house cool. In the garden, the lawn is watered automatically after a hot day and a robot mower keeps the grass trimmed.
Scientists in the burgeoning field of artificial life have reached a major milestone, creating a computerized system that automatically creates, evolves, improves and finally builds a variety of simple mobile creatures without any significant human intervention.
The "robotic life forms" that sprang into being at Brandeis University are a few inches long, comprise a dozen or two-dozen plastic parts and have rudimentary nervous systems made of wire. They do only one trick--crudely shoving themselves, inchworm-like, along a horizontal surface using miniature motors.
By the standards of even the cheapest automated toys, that may not seem like much. But the creatures described in the journal Nature were not constructed, planned, designed or even imagined by people. Every step--except for a couple of trivial hardware connections--was done by computer. Their advent, Brandeis researchers Jordan B. Pollack and Hod Lipson say, marks "the first time robots have been robotically designed and robotically fabricated."
The achievement, according to Rodney Brooks, head of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, is "a long-awaited and necessary step toward the ultimate dream of self-evolving machines."
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System creates robotic life--automatically
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