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Year in review: Tomorrow's technology

Researchers in industry and academia tinker with computer systems that repair themselves, circuits that work at the molecular level, and much more.


Tomorrow's technology begins today

Researchers in industry and academia tinker with self-repairing systems, molecular circuits and more.

The customarily languid pace at which scientific research blossoms into practical applications appeared to speed up this year with a number of discoveries being rushed toward commercialization.

Autonomic computing, in which systems can configure and repair themselves, took a big leap forward when Pennsylvania State University researchers said they had developed software that can repair--on the fly--an attacked database while allowing it to continue processing transactions. Companies like Oracle and Microsoft are beginning to dabble with built-in basic diagnostic tools, while IBM, a leading proponent of autonomic computing, opened a hub for advanced research and product development in that field. But so far the tech companies' efforts don't seem to match the level of complexity of the Penn State software, whose prototype is being tested by the U.S. Air Force.

The use of the properties of light to encrypt data is the stuff of science fiction, but it came closer to reality as several established companies and start-ups fine-tuned the technology behind quantum cryptography. Research conducted at Northwestern University this year honed the technology to the point where the scientific community hailed the arrival of real-world applications using it.

Nanotechnology developed in research and development centers run by companies like Intel and IBM made a big splash, underscoring that technology built at the atomic level is no longer limited to academic labs. Scientists at IBM built the world's smallest computer circuits using an approach in which individual molecules stream across an atomic surface like toppling dominoes. Meanwhile, Intel said that it is working with Harvard and other universities on two experimental structures, made up of self-assembling silicon atoms, the other of self-assembling carbon atoms. Intel said such advances could become the building block of chips within the decade.

Scientists are also developing new energy sources to power portable electronics as the industry races to make smaller devices that have longer lasting battery life. One scientist at Cornell University recently built a device that converts the energy stored in radioactive material directly into mechanical motion, which in turn moves the parts of a minuscule machine to generate electricity. Whether the public is willing to walk around with a pocketful of radioactive material remains to be seen.

In a plebeian twist, the lowly desktop computer is increasingly being harnessed in scientific research in the place of supercomputers. Researchers at Stanford University said they successfully predicted the rate of complex chemical reaction using a distributed computing network. Such networks involve spreading computing tasks across hundreds or thousands of computers on the Internet or private networks that would otherwise be sitting idle. Even the Internet search engine Google got in on distributed computing, offering a beta version of its toolbar that lets users donate their computers' otherwise unused processing power to scientific projects.

Other advances, though still far from commercialization, have shown promise to improve existing technologies such as cell phones, wireless networks, Internet speeds, data storage systems and security.

--Sandeep Junnarkar

Is small the next big thing?
Nanotechnology, the science of building almost unfathomably small things, is maturing with the help of a growing number of devotees in the technology industry and on Wall Street.

February 11, 2002

Google takes on supercomputing
The Internet search company begins an experiment that could turn its modest toolbar software into a supercomputer to tackle scientific problems such as untangling genetic codes.

March 22, 2002

Nanowire or nanotube? Intel looks ahead
After 2010, silicon nanowires or carbon nanotubes could begin to replace standard transistors--and eventually become the building block of chips.

September 12, 2002

IBM wants computers that help themselves
Big Blue steps up its efforts to create computers that can think on their own so that humans can contemplate more important things.

October 20, 2002

Tomorrow's tech: The domino effect
Just as a falling apple spurred Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, toppling dominoes have inspired researchers to build the world's smallest computer circuits.

October 24, 2002

Software heals systems while they work
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say they've developed software that can repair a database that has been attacked, even as it continues to process transactions.

October 31, 2002

Smaller power sources on the horizon
The pace at which scientists are developing new energy sources for portable electronics is dramatically speeding up as the industry races to make smaller devices with longer-lasting batteries.

November 13, 2002

Polymers could push Internet speed
Researchers at Bell Labs clear the first hurdle to potentially increasing Internet speeds to well above today's fastest rates.

November 14, 2002

"Noisy light" is new key to encryption
At Northwestern University, scientists say they've harnessed the properties of light to set information into code that can be cracked only one way: by breaking the physical laws of nature.

November 15, 2002

Research aims to stop battery attackers
A team of computer scientists is working to prevent new types of denial-of-service attacks aimed at battery-powered mobile devices.

November 22, 2002


• Future cell phones to see the light
• Antenna to boost wireless security
• Encryption method getting the picture
• Prime efforts may boost encryption
• Experiment points to new spin on storage
• Justice Dept. reaches for "smart" gun
• TeraGrid supercomputing project expands
• Stanford gives distributed computing an A
• Energy Dept., IBM to unveil Science Grid
• ST builds chips for gene detection
• Rent a researcher with IBM
• Intel delves into life sciences
• IBM grid to target cancer research
• Gateway makes store PCs work overtime