Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Computer revolution 4.0

The first computing devices were mechanical machines with lots of wheels, cogs, rods and levers moving to perform operations on data. Electricity revolutionised these machines and valves replaced the wheels, cogs, rods and levers. Then the transistor came along and by putting many of those on a silicon chip the path to miniaturisation became an interstate. But soon, as computers became smaller and more powerful, our demands grew with it. A terabyte of memory will hold a couple of HD movies but together with our photo's, home-movies and music it's hardly enough anymore. Two terabyte will only buy us a few months more. We need more. And to play those HD movies and to play our HD games we need all the processing power we can get. It is beginning to look as though silicon and copper is not going to cut it much longer. We have reached the end of what the humble grain of sand can deliver.

Enter the next generation of computers. What that computer will look like still needs a bit of a look in a crystal ball but one can already see a few possible candidates for the most important elements of the machine: the processor, storage and communication.

The candidate for the processor would be the quantum computer. Dutch scientists of the University of Delft and the University of Eindhoven have discovered a way to better control the building blocks of such a quantum computer. These building blocks, called qubits, used to be controlled by a magnetic field which is very difficult to generate within a chip. The Dutch scientists have managed to use an electrical field to manipulate the qubits. On top of that they have managed to enclose these qubits in a piece of nanowire which essentially gives them a real building block to construct a computer with.

The next element of our fictitious future computer would be storage. It is great to have a super fast computer that spurts out data at a rate we can only dream of but where would we store all that data? At the rate we are consuming data storage now we are literally filling warehouses with bits and real estate is expensive which makes storage expensive. Enter the humble bacterium. Students of the Chinese University in Hong Kong are making headway in the technique of storing data in bacteria. They extract DNA from E. Coli bacteria - found in the lower intestine of nearly every warm blooded animal - make a small change to the DNA and put it back. Data stored. In this way 1 gram of bacteria can store the same amount of data as 900 terabyte drives. And it will last because every new generation of bacteria will carry the new, modified DNA. That way data can be stored for thousands of years. The students even built in encryption of the data. How about carrying your data in your belly? Pretty safe place to keep stuff, right? Only take care when you're taking anti-biotics, it may wipe your family photo's.

Then there is the sending of your ultra-HD family snaps to grandma on the other side of the globe. At the moment this is done with fibre-optics and satellites. But again thanks to quantum physics this can be done differently. Researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada have discovered a way to contain a quirk that has puzzled scientists for almost a hundred years. The entangled quantum state of photons can be reflected in two photons even while the photons are very far apart. In some mysterious way they communicate with each other. That communication we can use of course to transmit ones and zeroes over long distances. Until now though it had been impossible to garner any predictable success with this phenomenon. The researchers at the University of Calgary have now been able to contain this quirk and use it to our advantage. The beauty of this system is that there is no physical link between the photons and thus no way to tap into the data being transmitted. No snooping on your next Facebook chat then!

With these three elements it should be possible to build one heck of a computer. It will be fast and safe from prying eyes that wish to keep taps on your online activity. The overwhelming question though that is on any geek's lips will be: "But can it run Crysis?" I hazard a guess that the folks at Crytek will do their damnest to bring even this monster computer to its knees. And they will probably succeed. Which is a good thing: there's no sense in resting on one's laurels. On to computer revolution 5.0!

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