Technology that's totally impossible

Many things in this world don't make any sense. The popularity of Miley Cyrus is one pertinent example, but some technology is so bizarre that we refuse to believe in it

Many things keep us awake at night. Simon Cowell's hair is one. The implausible success of anyone who appears in Big Brother is another. But the thing that really keeps us staring into the darkness is technology. How the hell does it work? Simple gadgets like TVs and mice leave us unperturbed. But there are some things that are just beyond reasoning. 

Science-fiction writer and all-round genius Arthur C Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." On this one issue, we think he might have been wrong -- because it's quite obvious to us that some technology is magic. Or if not magic, at least utterly impossible and somehow a massive confidence trick.

We've ranked the most impossible technologies on the planet in order of their level of impossibility. If you've got all six things on this list, and haven't yet had breakfast, then as Douglas Adams said, you should consider dinner at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

The thing that makes hard drives amazing isn't just the amount of data they store, but more the fact that we're still using them as our primary method of storing and retrieving data decades after they were invented.

The basic principles of hard disks have remained unchanged pretty much since they were invented. Inside the hermetically sealed unit is a spinning platter. Spanning the radius of this platter is a head with a teeny-weeny magnet on the end. Data is written to the rapidly spinning platter with this tiny, fragile head, which never, ever comes into contact with the actual surface of the disk, but hovers just slightly above it -- very close in fact, just a few dozen nanometres.

Despite their incredible fragility, humanity has somehow managed to find a way to install hard drives into MP3 players, laptops, PVRs and pretty much anything else in which you need a shedload of storage for very little cost.

It's even more remarkable to consider that storage on hard drives costs pennies per gigabyte now, and for the most part these drives that spin millions of times a day, for years and years, are very reliable. Sure, from time to time you'll have a failure, but it's rare enough not to ruin most people's lives. It's even more incredible to think something as tiny as a particle of smoke can wreck a hard drive, which makes their general hard-wearing nature even more impressive.

Okay, there's not much mystery about how these things work, but the fact that they have done for so long strikes us as deeply suspicious. Surely there's a little magic going on here?

We use high-speed Internet every day, and we love it. Sadly, it's impossible. It's becoming obvious that we're all living in some Matrix-style construct and the machines are just making us think we've got all this cool technology -- in reality we're just sloshing around in some ghastly goo generating power for them.

What makes ADSL so improbable is it's transmitting a huge amount of data over some very ancient copper. That's right, copper, the stuff that isn't anywhere near as interesting or valuable as gold. In some ways, it's a shame the technology behind ADSL is actually quite simple -- it's annoying no one thought of it sooner. We could have saved most of the 90s if we'd left dial-up hell a little sooner.

So, how does ADSL manage to send high-speed data down the same cables you use to have a low-quality, mono conversation with someone? Sadly, this one's easy to explain. The portion of the phone line you use to make voice calls is only a small part of the available bandwidth available on the line. ADSL uses the frequencies above these voice calls to send and receive data -- which is why you can surf the Net and speak at the same time. Microfilters in your home mean you shouldn't hear interference on your voice line from the data being transmitted.

The speed of ADSL is governed by your distance from the exchange -- not because electrons are lazy, but because longer lines introduce interference that make data transfer less reliable, and more in need of error correction. ADSL isn't going away either, although we're at the speed limit of what we can expect until BT installs fibre-optic cables to streets across the UK. Because your phone line will then be connected to a fibre cabinet via a short length of copper, you'll be able to get very fast Internet using VDSL.

As much as we understand the way it works, we still can't help think it's just an elaborate ruse, and that data sent via the Internet is actually just carried by rats operating deep under the cities of the world. That would certainly explain the awful ping we get in CounterStrike. Hey, give those rats a bit of speed, will you?

The first mobile phones were like radios. To make a call, you were essentially using a walkie-talkie to connect to something at the phone exchange that would turn your keypad-mashing into signals, which would allow you to dial other phones. As time went on, mobile phone networks launched and the whole process became more streamlined -- and eventually digital.

The implausible part hasn't come until quite recently. 3G networks allow us to stream data at speeds that, at least in theory, could compete with home broadband. And all this happens over the air with little tiny radio waves that ask for no payment in exchange for their hard work. What's more ridiculous is that there are millions of mobile phones in the UK and billions more globally and we're all able to talk to people across the planet on a device the size of a pack of cards. We can surf the Net and download porn Ubuntu wherever we are, as long as we're in reach of a mobile cell tower.

Surely such things are pure witchcraft? Judging by the cancer hysteria we've seen in the past 15 years, mobile phones have certainly been treated as badly as those lonely Medieval women with a thing for cats.

It all started with the printing press around 1440, and ended up with the HP Laserjet 4 making constant, enigmatic requests for users to "PC LOAD LETTER". Although printing is a remarkable step forward for humanity, it's easy to understand how the process works -- essentially some kind of ink gets stuck on some kind of paper. The problems with plausibility arise with 3D printers.

Yes. That's right. We said 3D printers.

It's now somehow possible -- certainly though magic -- to print three-dimensional objects using a special printer. What's more, these printers can print more printers, and you know what that means, right? That's correct: one day there will be printers as far as the eye can see. And each one of those printers will print more printers. And those printers will print more printers. If you've seen the Star Trek episode 'The Trouble With Tribbles', that's what's going to happen to us. With printers.

To be fair, the process behind 3D printing is reasonably straightforward. They use a variety of technologies to achieve their goals. For the most part, they share the technology of the inkjet printer. Instead of ink, they build layers using a photopolymer. A UV lamp fixes the layer, and then the process begins again. The printer-printing printer we mentioned earlier is part of open-source project RepRap, the goal of which is to provide everyone access to three-dimensional printing.

With scientific research galloping ahead, it can't be long before we can print things made out of metal, and then we're in big trouble. Can you say Skynet?

USB memory has become increasingly ludicrous as time has passed. We could cope with the possibility that 16MB could be stored on something the size of a finger. What we have trouble with is the concept of being able to store ten times that amount of data on something a tenth of the size.

microSD cards are the size of your fingernail, just 1mm thick and can store up to 16GB of data. This is, of course, impossible. They can be written and re-written thousands of times and survive shocks that would finish any hard drive -- also impossible. You can cover an SD card in honey, feed it to a bear, and it will still work post-digestive system, once you've picked the poo off the contacts. Impossible!

What's even more alarming is the trickery involved in SD cards is just going to get more outrageous. In the next few years we'll start to see cards that can store up to 2TB of data. That's as much as the most capacious hard drive on the market. In something the size of a fingernail.

Despite the difficulty we have believing microSD cards are possible, they very much are. Sadly, we don't understand quite how. The Wikipedia page mentions things like NAND gates and internal charge pumps, but such terms are mere gibberish, and clearly a cover-up for a far more sinister technology. The best idea we've come up with is that in each microSD card is a very tiny wormhole. This passage through space pipes data to a distant planet, where legions of enslaved Oompa Loompas store your data in half-size filing cabinets.

There are two very good quotes about quantum physics. The first is from Richard Feynman, in 1965: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." The second is from Niels Bohr, who said, "Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it."

What makes quantum computers so terribly impossible is that they are really, really, really hard to understand. The basis of them is the idea that unlike a binary bit, a quantum bit or qubit can have more than two 'positions'. In binary computers a bit is given a value of either 1 or 0; in a quantum computer a bit can be either 1, 0 or a superposition of both.

Understand? No, that's fine, no one else does either. But trust us when we say, this is some next-level stuff. In theory, a quantum computer could be many times more efficient than a standard computer. For example, cracking encryption could be achieved in minutes or seconds, rather than many years in a traditional computer. What does that mean? Well, as the only people who'll have quantum computers for quite some time to come are governments and universities, it means your encrypted stuff isn't safe any more and physics students will be able to break into porn sites with incredible ease.

It gets even more mind-bending when you consider the principle of quantum entanglement, which suggests that it's possible to manipulate two separate electrons, separated by considerable space, as long as they were created at the same time. Entanglement suggests that if you do one thing to one electron, its 'pair' will be subjected to the same action, even if they are separated by a considerable gap. The implications for this in computing are vast, and instantaneous communication could make very powerful computers that could quite easily take over the world and enslave the human race in nanoseconds. It would also be really good for pirating movies.

 

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