Archive for the 'Computing & Society' Category


Single atom transistor. Whee!!

Researchers in Finland and Australia have submitted a research paper about their demonstration of a single-atom transistor. The report on says: “Researchers…have succeeded in building a working transistor, whose active region composes only of a single phosphorus atom in silicon.”

Why get excited about a geeky development like this?

I’ve made a big deal about how complex real world systems are such as a bacterium and the genetics of cancer and other bad diseases. The only way we’ll master them eventually is having more and more computing power for elaborate computer models and sensitive devices for looking deep within living things. To my mind these research reports are the early signals of progress forthcoming in development of electronic components, sensors, information storage and communication. These things are going to emerge in the not-too-distant-future.

The rapid development of computers, which created the present information society, has been mainly based on the reduction of the size of transistors. We have known for a long time that this development has to slow down critically during the future decades when the even tighter inexpensive packing of transistors would require them to shrink down to the atomic length scales.

These are not going to be transistors like we have in our laptops and mobiles; they’re going to be transistors for the next generation of computing: quantum computers. To be sure, there are enormous engineering challenges to getting to the next level, but there are frequent reports of developments like this one. It’ll happen and the impact will be great.

Unraveling the complexities of life processes and applying them to our day-to-day concerns is daunting. But developments like the single-atom transistor say to me that the forces of technology are converging to keep us moving ahead. We just need to persist.


Google calling

telephoneEvidently Google is maneuvering to take on telephony head-to-head. This Wired Epicenter blog post reports on Google’s acquisition of a  company called Gizmo5 that does VOIP things using open standards. So Google continues to toss bombs into the traditional business space of phone companies.

I marvel as the audacity of Google to challenge the established boundaries of the digital world. It doesn’t seem to “know its place” in the order of things. Google knows digits and beyond that it’s willing to re-imagine any niche previously dominated by older technologies and institutions. Those managing the establishment are on notice that nothing in the digital realm is sacred.

Too my mind Google and Apple are a couple of the best engines of change operating worldwide today. Technology inserts itself into the social order in innocuous ways like communication and entertainment. But in the long run it becomes the platform for a new social order.


Think really BIG…forever

supercomputerIBM is famous for having had signs around their offices in years past that said “THINK.” Evidently they need to modify the sign to say: “THINK BIG!”  According to a NY Times article the other day, Big Blue and other computing leaders like Google are  concerned that many students currently being trained in college are not being exposed to the tools that will enable them to imagine and execute projects that could be accomplished with the huge data sets and super-computing systems that will be available to them in their professional futures.

These days you can buy a terabyte drive for your PC for a couple hundred bucks. But fields like genomics, astronomy, geology, and medical imaging and modeling process petabytes of data already. And data is scaling exponentially.

But students typically deal with PCs or perhaps clusters of moderate performance. The concern is that those experiences will trap their thinking on that scale.

“If they imprint on these small systems, that becomes their frame of reference and what they’re always thinking about,” said Jim Spohrer, a director at I.B.M.’s Almaden Research Center.

The word “imprint” is what caught my eye. Since my last post about today’s tots living to be 100 I’ve been thinking: “How will this next generation remain flexible enough to be of value over a career that spans perhaps 50 or more years?” In my experience people tend to “imprint” on what they experience in their 20s and 30s. After that, perceiving and being open to change around them can become problematic. In a world that is likely to change at an exponential rate, how do people in their mid- to late-career years continue to be valuable? This has been a problem in highly technical fields like computing for quite a while already.

Living long is going to require more than being physically and mentally healthy; it’s going to call for qualities like creativity, perceptiveness, imagination, flexibility, and resilience over a l0nger span of time than for previous generations.


Full metabolism model. How exciting!

metabolic pathways 1Science published a study today by the Burnham Institute at UC San Diego, The Scripps Institute, and the Novartis Genomics Institute reporting that they have for the first time modeled the central metabolic pathway system of a bacterium, complete with 3-D, atomic resolution overlays of the involved proteins. Exciting, no?

On the Burnham website they say:

Combining biochemical studies, structural genomics and computer modeling, the researchers deciphered the shapes, functions and interactions of 478 proteins that make up T. maritima’s central metabolism. The team also found connections between these proteins and 503 unique metabolites in 562 intracellular and 83 extracellular metabolic reactions.

“We have built an actual three dimensional model of every protein in the central metabolic system,” said Adam Godzik, Ph.D., director of Burnham’s Bioinformatics and Systems Biology program. “We got the whole thing. This is analogous to sequencing an entire genome.”

Here’s a link to a little video on Vimeo about the project.

Developing a solid computer model of any living thing — even a bacterium — is an important step. Computer modeling of airplanes, electronic components, architectural projects and many other things have enabled huge strides in understanding and efficiently designing many things we use today. But the innards of any living thing have been so complex that full modeling has been pretty much beyond reach. What’s exciting about this accomplishment is the prospect of scaling up to model cells, organisms, and even ecosystems. If computer models of cells and organisms prove to be as useful as modeling in other areas has, then this is a bit like putting a rocket engine behind bio-medical research.

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