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November 30, 2000

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Here's How the Microchip will Explode Horizons
Think sand at the beach is bad? Silicon will get into everything

By Jim Erickson Hong Kong

OVER THE COURSE OF history, society-changing inventions have almost always served to improve upon man's physical strength. The steam engine, the automobile, gunpowder - all provided means to accomplish work (and/or mayhem) faster and more efficiently than can the human organism acting alone or in groups. One of this century's key inventions, the microprocessor, represents a profoundly different sort of breakthrough. By managing electrical impulses to crudely mimic the logic of the brain - on or off, one or zero, yes or no - the microprocessor is an extension not of strength, but of intelligence. It is a tool for leveraging the process of thought itself.

The microprocessor's forerunner, the computer, was the first truly versatile mental prosthetic. But computers at first were big and expensive and their powers could be tapped only by a fortunate few. What engineers for Intel Corp. did in 1971 was shrink those great boxes of transistors and wires down to a more manageable size by etching circuitry and logic gates in miniature on an inexpensive, mass-producible silicon wafer - the stuff of ordinary sand. The advent of the "computer on a chip" made synthetic IQ widely available by making it economical. More importantly, it set in motion a virtuous cycle of technological advancement. Chips get smaller and cheaper and faster and more commonplace all the time. Intel founder Gordon Moore, in a now-famous observation that came to be known as "Moore's Law," estimated that microprocessors double in power (or become 50% cheaper) every 18 months.

Predicting as it does a rapid, ongoing proliferation of machine intelligence, Moore's Law presents "a fabulously clear and articulate statement of possibility," says Paul Saffo, director at the Institute for the Future, a U.S. think tank. The principle explains why a Furby, a $30 toy that talks and responds to humans, today contains more processing power than the lunar module that landed on the moon 30 years ago. It also explains why a myriad of helpful devices with chips for brains are constantly being created, and why they are able to perform increasingly complex tasks, sometimes without human intervention - and often better than if people were in charge, such as in the case of chips that control anti-skid braking systems in cars.

"When you think in terms of this doubling phenomenon, it's so outrageous you may be swallowing microprocessors like you swallow vitamins," says Nicholas Negroponte, founding director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They will be woven into your clothes, they will be in your sneakers. They will be all over the place." The average middle-class household in the U.S. already contains at least 50 microprocessors, not only in the personal computer but in the washing machine, the bathroom scale, the telephone - just about anything with an electrical switch. In five years, the number is expected to grow to 280.

The microprocessor is continuously being adapted to new uses, saturating every aspect of daily life. Coupled with wireless communications, chip-based information appliances will within the next several years make it possible for people to receive digital data - stock quotes, grocery prices, Internet sites, corporate sales reports, restaurant reviews, sports, weather, traffic - on demand, anywhere on earth. Language barriers will fall with the advent of gadgets capable of translating sentences as they are spoken. In the home, smart ovens will unerringly cook food, entertainment units that know your preferences will retrieve favorite programs automatically or by voice command, while other digital assistants will eliminate daily drudgery by arranging for the restocking of depleted pantries, among other services. Automobiles that know where you are and can direct you to your destination, that warn you of treacherous road conditions or impending collisions, that can even take over the wheel in emergencies (or if you need a nap) are already under development. Smart cards - credit-card-sized pieces of plastic with embedded microprocessors -portend a cashless society where individuals carry electronic wallets containing all identification and means of payment in digital form.

The wired lifestyle of the early 21st Century is accepted today almost as a predictable given. But living in a microprocessor-enhanced future replete with smart buildings, smarter cars, and talking belt-buckles (to alert you that your auto-zipper has malfunctioned) may be odder than we expect. "The result will be a very strange, hybrid digital-analog landscape," says Saffo, "an intelligent landscape inhabited, of course, by humans, but increasingly by things that, while not quite intelligent, at moments seem intelligent enough to fool us and autonomous enough to do useful things for us. Imagine devices that do not merely perform tasks as you sit before them, but instead are doing things for you when you are not around."

Hidden in the fine print of this cozy contract between flesh and silicon are some clauses with potentially unpleasant consequences. Reducing all forms of commerce and communication to data means we will leave digital footprints everywhere we go. Omipresent surveillance and monitoring of individuals - both their corporeal selves and their electronic surrogates in cyberspace - by corporations and governments may become a very real threat to privacy. Technophobes envision the Mark of the Beast: identification chip-cum-satellite tracking devices that, embedded under our skin, let Big Brother keep tabs on citizens from cradle to grave.

Society may be willing to tolerate lesser evils for greater good. Certainly the benefits are compelling to soldiers fortunate enough to be conscripted into the digital army. As the conflict in Kosovo recently demonstrated, it is possible to punish the enemy using semi-autonomous weaponry to do the dirty work while wet-wired troops remain well away from danger. Independent robotic warriors remain the stuff of science fiction, as does the artificially intelligent HAL computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But progress is being made so quickly that some predict we will shake hands with fully realized robots - whether automated soldiers or household e-pets - within a few generations. "When you compare the evolution of mental abilities in animals to similar abilities in machines, robot evolution is going about 10 million times faster," says Hans Moravec, director of the Mobile Robot Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. "Fifty years, tops, until the robots exceed us."

Exceed us? The chip apparently is destined to become one with us. Research is progressing in robotic limbs and body implants that can take over the functions of failing human organs. In labs there are the first glimmerings of cyborg technology - the hybridization of humans and electro-mechanics. At De Montfort University in England, scientists have successfully attached and grown mammal cells on a special porous silicon. They hope to create a direct connection between the human nervous system and electrical circuits. Bionic appendages could be controlled by thoughts, and artificial sensors would take the place of - and outperform - eyes or ears. Cellular phones may become obsolete when a chip in your head, connected to your brain, will handle incoming and outgoing calls.

If the pace with which science fiction is becoming science fact seems overwhelming, the explanation lies in Moore's Law. Exponentially expanding computer power has turbocharged the process of scientific inquiry itself. Chemists, aeronautical engineers, biologists, meteorologists and others use sophisticated computer modeling techniques to test theories virtually, eliminating time-consuming, real-world trial and error. Affordable computer workstations capable of manipulating massive amounts of data are helping to unravel nature's more elusive secrets. Because of the microprocessor, previously Herculean research projects such as the Human Genome Project, an international effort to map the three billion DNA sequences that determine the human genetic makeup, are being completed ahead of schedule.

Some predict that the microprocessor's march will end within the next 15 years, as the practicalities of building ever-faster, smaller, cheaper circuits on silicon run up against unbending physical limits. Yet science is already plotting work-arounds, alternative technologies. A field called photonics substitutes highly efficient beams of laser light for electrical impulses, promising to overcome some of the problems associated with shuffling ever-greater amounts of data across ever-smaller computer components. The silicon chip itself may ultimately be relegated to a museum by another nascent technology called quantum computing. Through subatomic engineering, scientists hope to knit together groups of crystalline molecules, which can store electrical charges, into impossibly small devices that perform like silicon chips. "We can potentially get the computational power of 100 workstations on the size of a grain of sand," says James Heath, a chemistry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and head of a quantum computing research team. Possible applications: biomedical robots that can be injected into the body, and supercomputers the size of wristwatches. As the song goes: "I can build a castle from a single grain of sand." We just have to make it a home we will like living in.

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