Star Trek: This Generation
By Stephen Lawton
Some years ago I read All I Really Needed to Know I Learned from Star
Trek by Dave Marinaccio. What strikes me now about that book is that
so much of Star Trek has already come true in some form. True, we can't
fly at warp speed (or even impulse) and Scotty won't beam me up, but the
technology is something else. From noninvasive injections to body scanners
to cell phones, Star Trek is coming true today.
Recently I saw something extraordinary that could change the way we live,
bringing Star Trek just a little bit closer. I was at Hewlett-Packard
doing research for an article I'm writing and had the opportunity to visit
the Quantum Science Research Laboratory. They're doing fascinating work
in developing the next, next generation of semiconductors, which can be
as thin as one atom and offer speeds potentially faster than today's fastest
chips. And HP is not alone in developing this class of semiconductors;
technology like this is being developed from coast to coast and at laboratories
throughout Europe. I'm sure they're probably working on it in Asia and
other places, but I didn't talk to those folks.
The applications for this technology are mind-boggling. Consider this:
Clothing designers will be able to put programmable chips right into the
fabric of clothes. In fact, nanotechnology is already being used in clothing.
You can buy pants from Eddie Bauer, which has what the company calls nanowhiskers
sticking up from the fabric. The whiskers, manufactured by Nano-Tex, are
microscopic fibers that keep liquid from penetrating the pants. Imagine
pants that stay dry even in the rain. Now that would be advancement.
What HP is planning is even more exotic. You might soon be able to program
your child's clothing so that you'd be able to find them with a global
positioning system (GPS) if they got lost - or stolen. Hopefully, some
day, I'll be able to buy a golf ball I can never lose, no matter how high
the rough is. It might not help my game, but it would certainly help my
But nanotechnology isn't limited to nanowhiskers or atom-high chips. A
company called Nantero is building memory chips using carbon nanotubes.
The interesting thing is, this 21st-century technology is being driven
by very 20th-century electromechanical designs. It is amazing that the
next generation of memory is built on such an old concept.
Other companies are building different kinds of semiconductors that will
be used to create flexible video screens. Scientists at Bell Labs and
elsewhere tell me that this breakthrough in technology could have a huge
impact on the world's number one reflective media today for communications
- paper. Imagine having a piece of paper that could display anything you
want; it could even have more channels than satellite or cable. You might
even be able to wallpaper your living room with this electronic paper
someday. Who needs a 52-inch television when your 10-foot by 8-foot wall
can be your video display? On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want to
pop in a DVD and watch an 8-foot-tall Forrest Gump.
From clothing semiconductors and wall-sized televisions to smart cards
that can display your entire medical history on a two-inch-square screen
and electronic paper, our world is about to change, and this change is
coming soon. Not to be outdone, however, the folks at Intel are looking
at ways to extend the life of silicon. To put that in perspective, the
8080 processor used in the original IBM PCs in 1981 had about 5,000 transistors.
The current generation of Pentium 4 processors has some 42 million transistors,
while the Itanium has closer to 220 million. By the end of the decade,
Intel is projecting processors with up to 1 billion transistors that are
clever enough to do real-time translations. The universal translator might
be closer than you think.
This is all very important because it could change the way we make decisions
on the technology we buy for our home and office. The change will be almost
as dramatic as the one we saw in the early 1980s when PCs began to find
their ways to corporate desktops and into homes. New companies will rise
from the ashes of some of today's technology leaders. New technologies
will make even some of today's most advanced products, such as the flat-panel
Tomorrow's technology looks very promising indeed, and will be able to
do things we can't even imagine today. Of course, there still are lots
more gadgets to invent. I'm still waiting for the Heisenberg Compensators
that we need in order to build a transporter. Beam me up, Scotty.