Thursday, January 12, 2012

Laws Were Made To Be Broken

Most of my life I have spent time around computers. From my high school years using a teletype terminal, acoustic coupler to access a remote, time-sharing system to now using an iPad2, I have seen it all. Computers have evolved from monolithic cabinets filling entire rooms to the size of your smart phone. Yet, in terms of power, speed and capacity they have increased beyond our imagination. My iPhone would easily outperform the supercomputers of yesteryear.

Well, fire up your imagination and put it in overdrive because new developments are going to make computers even smaller and faster than ever before.

The increase in power and decrease in size are both related to the miniaturization of the logic circuits that make up the computer. Transistors replaced vacuum tubes which were themselves reduced to etchings in silicon chips. Logic circuits are made up of wires that define paths for the electricity to follow. There are gates, like railroad switch tracks and toggles to turn power on and off. You probably know computers fundamentally store and handle everything as a collection of ones and zeros.

Exactly how this all works is not as important as just the basic concept that electricity, the life blood of  electronics, moves at the speed of light. If it has a shorter distance to travel, it gets there sooner. Simple, right? So making the paths on a circuit card shorter makes the computer faster. If I can make the "wire" smaller and can pack more into the same space. Make the etchings in the silicon narrower makes the "wire" smaller and the chip faster.

Researchers have developed a technique for constructing wire at the atomic level. Up to this point, circuits have been measured in terms of nano-meters (one billionth of a meter) with the smallest being about 32nm. According to the team at the University of New South Wales, wire only four atoms wide and a single atom high are now possible. That will make the circuits roughly 20 times smaller than the smallest in use today. The implications are mind boggling. and they are not done yet.

Way back in 1965 Gordon Moore  predicted the density of circuits would double every two years. Moore's Law, as it is called, has proven to be accurate far beyond the ten year horizon Gordon envisioned. It continues to hold true even today and is expected to hold until 2015.

With the advent of a new level of miniaturization, this atomic chip, we might soon be breaking the law.

Captain Joe

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