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5/5/2008
05:19 AM
Neil Raden
Neil Raden
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On the Technology Horizon: Ice? Racetracks?

It's no mystery why diamonds are often referred to as "ice." Sure, they look like ice, but have you ever touched one and noticed it was cooler than you thought it would be? It really is cooler because the diamond's stiff crystalline structure actually shield the atoms from heat vibrations. So what does this have to do with information technology? A lot.

It's no mystery why diamonds are often referred to as "ice." Sure, they look like ice, all clear and faceted. But have you ever touched one and noticed it was cooler than you thought it would be? You probably thought it was just the power of suggestion, but it really is cooler. The reason is that a diamond's stiff crystalline structure actually shields the atoms from heat vibrations. So what does this have to do with information technology? A lot.An atom can store the famously weird quantum information. Scientists have already demonstrated the profoundly powerful capabilities of a so-called quantum computer, but they haven't been able to get around one irritating hurdle - they have to operate at nearly absolute-zero. A diamond can solve that problem and allow a quantum computer to operate at room temperature. Now it's not in the purity of the diamond that all this happens, it's in the little impurities where nitrogen fills in the gap between the carbon atoms. At a quantum level, this produces "spin," which is the quantum form of magnetism. Now do you see where this is going? All it takes is a tiny chip of diamond (artificial ones, so the cost is low) because there are a gazillion atoms (think gazillion bytes of RAM) in a tiny chip.

Don't expect to see these used commercially anytime soon, but it does sort of humble one to think about how puny our efforts of today will look in a decade or so.

Another fascinating, and likely more commercially exploited technology in the near-term, is racetrack memory? What? Let's back up a minute. In the 25-year period from 1980 to 2005, the density of hard disk drives grew five orders of magnitude: from 1 megabyte to 100 gigabytes. If automobile technology progressed at the same pace, a new Ferrari would be capable of going from 0-60 miles an hour in five one-hundred thousandth's of a second, and getting fifty BILLION miles per gallon (which probably wouldn't take that long with a top speed of 1/6th the speed of light). But advances in mechanical devices simply can't keep up with electrical ones. So while the density of disk drives is more or less following the curve of Moore's Law, the performance is not. They are partly mechanical. Miniaturization and speed in RAM, along with declining costs, allow for more things to stay resident in memory, but that's always a little dicey without backup. Besides, the growth in the volumes of data we process is growing as fast as RAM capacity, if not faster.

Back to the racetrack, from "New Scientist," April 19-25, 2008:

"Meier, a physicist at the the University of Hamburg, Germany, has captured the lightning fast movement of regions of magnetism called domains - a phenomenon at the heart of a new breed of computer memory."

The article goes on explain that magnetic domains store binary information as magnetic fields pointing in one direction or another. OK, that's cool, I guess, but isn't that how an MRI works too? But here is the rub: They can make them race around a narrow wire "track" in response to current. In fact, they've been able to clock them at 110 meters/second (roughly 250 mph, pretty fast at nano scale). It gets even better. They can change the direction. So perhaps now you see what is so fundamentally important about this. Instead of spinning a platter and moving a mechanical arm to read or write data, they can leave the material device stationary and just spin the electrons in one direction to read, the other direction to write.

IBM's Almaden Research Lab has actually been able to demonstrate this. Don't expect to see this in production anytime soon, but like quantum computing, it's not too far away, which means we'll all have interesting things to do for the rest of our lives.It's no mystery why diamonds are often referred to as "ice." Sure, they look like ice, but have you ever touched one and noticed it was cooler than you thought it would be? It really is cooler because the diamond's stiff crystalline structure actually shield the atoms from heat vibrations. So what does this have to do with information technology? A lot.

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