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.