Tech's future--smart dust and ratbots

Research firm IDC gives a glimpse of little discussed emerging technologies that may one day lead to great changes in the industry.

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff writer, CNET News
Dawn Kawamoto covered enterprise security and financial news relating to technology for CNET News.
Dawn Kawamoto
2 min read
Smart dust, lily pads and ratbots.

These technologies are far from being household names. And they're not exactly tripping off the tongues of most IT market researchers, either. But they could one day be as significant as the microprocessor or the mouse, according to a report issued Wednesday by research firm IDC.

"We looked at technologies that were beyond the radar screen of normal market research," said John Gantz, IDC chief research officer. "These are technologies not technically covered by IDC on a usual basis."

Gantz and David Emberley, an IDC senior research analyst, identified nine technologies that have backing from universities and major national laboratories and offer the potential to change lives.

The researchers identified smart dust, lily pads, ratbots, nanotubes, nanomachines, quantum computing, plastic transistors, the Semantic Web and grid computing as technologies to watch, although they noted some of these were more likely to materialize in our lifetime than others.

Ratbots are being used to test the possibility of transmitting information between a living thing and a computer via implants. A ratbot setup consists of an electronic "backpack," worn by a rat, and sensors implanted in the rat's brain. Signals are sent to the backpack and then instructions are sent to the rat's brain via the sensors, Gantz said.

The ratbot is just one of several developments in this area, Gantz said. For example, Kevin Warwick, a University of Reading professor, implanted a chip in his arm that transmitted information to a computer. When Warwick clenched his hand, a robot would follow suit via a computer connection.

Such technology could be used for prosthetics and memory aids, Gantz said. It could also be used in communications and for monitoring. Gantz adding that we're likely to see minor medical advances using this technology in our lifetime.

Smart dust, meanwhile, refers to tiny sensors, about the size of an eraser head, used for logistics, monitoring and preventative maintenance. These intelligent, active sensors are already in limited use, with one Australian company deploying the technology to detect hot spots on train wheels and identify aging wheel bearings.

Ultrastrong, light-emitting nanotubes will also likely be put to use in the foreseeable future, gaining use for computer circuits and flat panel displays. But other technologies looked at by IDC may take time to catch on. The concept of linking wireless networks like lily pads may not float, Gantz said. In part because of market considerations.

Linking wireless networks poses a threat to carriers that transmit information and data long distances over their networks, Gantz said. And the entrenched players with their expensive networks will seek ways to stop this lily pad linking, he added.