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NatureInterface > No.01 > P018 [Japanese]

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Future Technologies to Interface with Nature

Rafael Reif

M.I.T.

The vision of Nature Interface, and of products and technologies that make possible the human interface with nature, is a powerful one. This vision and its implementation will drive the way we think and what we think about. But the implementation of this vision requires advanced technologies; among them, micro and nano scale enabling technologies. This article attempts to briefly summarize some of the challenges in micro/nano scale technologies, emphasizing what is important for nature interface applications.

Background

The information revolution made possible by microfabrication technologies has significantly changed the way we live. Innovations such as the personal computer, the internet, wireless communication, optical communication, and the world wide web, among many others, have changed the way we work and the way we relax. These tremendous changes, made possible by innovations not predicted 30 years ago, will be viewed 30 years from now as the infancy of a new era. It is probably not a good idea to try to predict the future, as we will probably be wrong. But what is predictable is that the ubiquitous presence of microlectronics today is going to appear extremely limited compared to the impact nanotechnologies will have in the future, not just in the way we work and relax, but in the way we make a diagnosis, cure, travel, entertain, communicate, etc. Nanotechnologies will also enable many applications that will allow us to interface with nature in unpredictable ways.

There are many areas where nanotechnologies will play a significant role in our everyday life. This article attempts to highlight computation and communication, which are necessary ingredients of the nature interface vision.

Computation and communication

The information revolution of the last 30 years has been fueled by the silicon semiconductor industry. Today, the persistent increase of computing power per unit volume of physical space has led to the current communication revolution. Information storage and processing are increasingly distributed over a diversified network of interconnected information appliances. This collaborative capability of interconnected information components may prove indispensable in the deployment of nature interface products and systems.

However, the rate of progress enjoyed by conventional microelectronics may not continue into the future at the same pace. Electron-based technologies such as the MOSFET as the basic switching element may be nearing the end of its incredible life. It is widely believed that the fundamental element of semiconductor circuits, the MOSFET transistor, will be the first to run into problems associated with the quantum nature of matter. These problems may slow down the pace of the improvements made possible by scaling both transistors and their interconnections to produce increasingly faster and more complex circuits. To continue scaling silicon to the limits of patterning capabilities, the transistors structure as well as its interconnection may have to change dramatically. This is an area of unexplored territory, and an important component of the enabling technologies needed in a nature interface world. For example, how much longer are we going to continue to switch and process digital information using MOSFET electronic devices? Are we going to be using, in the not-too-distant future, quantum devices to do the switching? Alternatively, are we going to process information the way biological cells do it?

Another important area is the scaling of communication systems. The gap between increased computation speed and communication bandwidth has been widening. From the early 1980s microprocessor speed has increased by about 100x, and memory density by well over 1000x, while modem and local-area access speed have increased by only about 10x. While this has been limited to some extent by the communication transmission media, the underlying technology for integration of communication with information processing also has not kept pace with its information counterpart. This is another example of an area where the electronic world may interface with (or be replaced by?) the photonic world. Are we going to change, in the not-too-distant future, from electron-based devices to photonic-based devices?

A particular important activity to implement the nature interface vision is that of increasing the integrated functionality of information processing systems. This could be accomplished by adding functionality to silicon-based integrated circuits, or by merging silicon-based electronic technologies with photonic technologies. The most important new functionality will be communication, covering the spectrum from RF to optical. This is an area of tremendous opportunities. It could be advisable to try to implement this vision by leveraging the immense industrial investment in silicon technology. On the other hand, photonic technologies do offer a potentially attractive disruptive technology.

Finally, improvements in computation, communication, and integrated functionality, will have to come together with improvements in energy consumption. Nature interface devices not only will have to require extremely low levels of energy, but they may have to include technologies that allow them to generate the energy they need. Will it be possible to use nano-electro-mechanical technology to fabricate devices capable of generating the energy needed by nature interface systems?

Conclusion

We are moving inexorably into a nature interface world, in which we will be able to interface with nature and learn from it in ways we can only dream today. A significant enabling technology in this vision is provided by low energy computation and communication. Tremendous progress is needed to accomplish the nature interface

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