Molecular Computing,
The Next Information Systems Revo

Part 2 of an overview of a family of new technologies
that is soon going to turn the computer and
consumer electronics industries upside down.

Francis Vale


To First Part, Last Issue

Semiconductor designers are always trying to shrink circuit line widths in order to increase overall processor speed. Today, the best commercial fabrication techniques produce devices with a line width of 0.35 micron (a human hair is about 75 microns in width.)

But shrinking line widths will ultimately cause massive thermal dissipation problems; i.e., all of these increasing millions of tightly spaced electronic switches generate heat.

This thermal buildup is a natural consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which in one form states that irreversible processes create entropy (which can be loosely stated as heat). AND gates, one of the most fundamental logic elements within a processor, are presently designed to work only in one direction, and are thus irreversible in their operation.

So, whenever an AND gate clears (destroys) one bit of data, it also generates heat. Obviously, this is very wasteful of energy resources. As succinctly stated by Professor Tomasso Toffolli of M.I.T., "How much free energy do you have to lose for a computation?"

Consequently, as you build ever faster and denser silicon-based processors that are irreversible in operation, heat dissipation eventually becomes a huge obstacle.

But this limitation might be overcome if a still-theoretical reversible logic device called a Fredkin gate could be constructed. The underlying premise of a Fredkin gate is that if a computation could be reversed (unwound back to its original state), then no heat would be lost because the second law of thermodynamics would not be involved.

The radical notion of reversible computer logic was discovered independently by Dr. Charles Bennett of IBM, and later by Dr. Edward Fredkin of M.I.T. Dr. Fredkin and Dr. Toffolli have since proved that a computer using reversible Fredkin logic can do anything that a conventional, irreversible system can.

But just as it is cheaper to manufacture large displacement, fuel inefficient car engines than smaller ones with expensive turbochargers, so too, "It is cheaper to build systems that waste energy, as opposed to systems that conserve it" says Toffolli. The natural tendency for semiconductor companies, therefore, is to design and build wasteful (i.e., irreversible) systems.

However, in an age of increasing awareness about global resource conservation, the day of the energy-wise Fredkin gate may soon come to pass. For if Fredkin gates were able to replace the semiconductor based logic of processors entirely, they would produce a tremendous benefit in energy savings.

The question then becomes how to commercially build this Fredkin device. It may be possible to create it out of semiconductor materials, but Toffolli thinks that a Fredkin gate would be "very tough to implement in silicon."

On the other hand, biomolecular materials might be a natural medium for constructing reversible Fredkin gates. For in the world of biological systems, sufficiently small systems are reversible, just like a Fredkin gate.

In nature, reversibility is a key factor in any type of truly successful, dynamic organism. As Henry Baker of Thimble Systems (Encino, CA) states it, "Biological computational processes, so unlike silicon ICs, rely on reversible chemical reactions, and are not so nearly wasteful of energy." Baker gives the example of DNA replication, which, he says, "if it wasted as much heat per bit as a modern CPU, would cause a developing chick to fry inside its own egg!"

Thus, biomolecular materials might be a natural medium for constructing reversible Fredkin gates, and are worthy of serious exploration.

More Than Just Speed

But the issues raised by biomolecular computing go far beyond blinding processing speed, incredible amounts of storage, very low manufacturing costs, and energy conservation. Once successfully built in commercial quantities, such biocomputers could radically change the entire nature of computing; and quite possibly, the very fabric of human society.

For what would happen if biomolecular Fredkin gates. along with advances like genetically engineered bR-based biocomputers, were to suddenly merge with other genetic engineering advances; e.g., were to take full advantage of the advancing technical know-how of the bio-tech community?

Such bio-computers might be genetically engineered to exhibit a kind of native, self-adaptive intelligence; one capable of easily passing even the most difficult Turing test. (Note: Alan Turing, a British mathematical genius. In 1950, he challenged scientists to create a computer that could trick people into thinking it was actually a person via a Q&A interactive dialog. Hence, the "Turing Test.") So, instead of AI standing for artificial intelligence, it one day might come to mean 'autonomous intelligence'.

Obviously, such an intelligent, bio-engineered computer system is a huge conceptual leap. Yet all the present indicators point to something like this possibly happening by the year 2000.

Who Will The New Players Be?

But which companies are going to take the first step in creating and marketing these new and revolutionary systems? It will probably not be IBM, nor Digital, nor HP; even though Digital had helped to fund Birge, and Ari Avirim at IBM was an early pioneer in molecular electronics.

The operative words in most large companies are 'preserve the market base.' Molecular computing, by its very nature, will radically effect the installed market base of traditional computers. A similar seismic shift happened with the transition from mainframes and Minis to PCs. The big computer companies of the 70's and 80's are still trying to adjust their business models to accommodate this shift.

In addition, this molecular scale revolution will greatly impact the existing semiconductor technology base, along with the human skill set required to keep it running. One can easily envision platoons of semiconductor-oriented EEs being replaced by chemists, or biologists, or physicists, or geneticists; or more likely, by multi-disciplinary teams of such scientists.

Consequently, any big American vendor would have to turn themselves inside out to accommodate such a radical paradigm shift. It is possible, but highly unlikely, that this revolution could be accommodated without massive internal (and external) disruption.

The likely candidates for producing either biomolecular or nanometer systems therefore fall into three other potential categories:

a) The Japanese electronics industry,

b) the classic U.S. high tech startup, and,

c) the new globally-based bio-engineering companies.

In Japan, there are already many industry and government consortia that are annually spending millions on molecular computing research. The Japanese have consistently shown that they are willing to spend vast sums of time and money on emerging technologies that will ultimately assure them of a continued global leadership position.

Big Japanese companies have also demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt. One good example is the Japanese steel industry. Companies like Nippon Steel, and Kubota (Tractor) are quickly abandoning their traditional industries and are making huge investments in high tech systems and services.

The Japanese industry/government approach to molecular computing is sorely contrasted with what is happening in the U.S. While research activity in the U.S. is intense, it is isolated, scattered, and lacks a coherent, well articulated, Federal Government mandate (very unlike the Information Superhighway, VP Gore's pet project. )

The primary source of federal funding is instead coming from individual agencies, like the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, and the U.S. Army Research Office; and often via government sponsored SBIR grants (Small Business Innovation Research).

Some U.S. software companies, like VXM Technologies (Boston, MA) are also keenly aware of this impending revolution, and are deliberately designing their parallel processing, self-adaptive systems so that they might ultimately be recast as molecular devices.

Lastly, the bio-engineering companies are very good candidates for producing molecular computers. These companies already have in place much of the needed technical infrastructure to produce biological and genetically engineered devices. Some of these bio companies may already have developed components that could lend themselves to molecular computing, but they are simply unawares of their huge new market potential.

The End?

Ultimately, all this advanced research is going to have a profound impact on the professional IS community. This transition (initially, anyway) may not be so difficult, for it is a truism that new technologies are first used in old ways. Thus, some commercial applications of this advanced research are immediately obvious.

Optical/biomolecular bR memory systems. and STM-based storage devices, both featuring incredible capacity and diminutive size, will likely begin to show up by the end of this decade. These new storage devices will be readily integrated with traditional computer systems via appropriate interfaces.

At about the same time, the laptop/palm-held community may also start using batteries made of conducting organic polymers (plastics) that will provide a tremendous reduction in weight, as well offer greatly increased longevity of charge. Lastly, systems variants of these radical technologies may also usher in new bio-systems that bring supercomputing power right to the users' lap (or hand).

As the enterprise computing environment increasingly takes on the form of a far flung, loosely connected 'information utility', with ever more cheap, disposable computing power dispersed out to individual users, the 'grand challenge' for IS professionals will be to find new and innovative ways to serve both their organizations' and their users' needs.

However, at some not too distant critical juncture, possibly at the advent of bio-engineered autonomous intelligence, bio-molecular computer systems will begin to assert an entirely new way of processing information. When this juncture is finally reached, the true molecular computing revolution is going to change the names of the major players, radically change business structures, and fundamentally alter our human society.

We might be shocked to discover that human beings are no longer alone at the top of the organic pyramid.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network,