April 2002  

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 wallet.

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 display, obsolete.

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.

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