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A man and his microscope: IBM's quest to make atom-sized chips

The silver surfer speaks

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El Reg: How close are you? Have you done this?

DE: Well, we've done the molecule cascades. That's inspired us to do it with spins. We have put in place a tool, which allows us to interrogate the spin configuration first for a single atom to determine how much energy it takes to flip the spin. Then, we have a paper coming out in Science magazine where we show that we can take that tool and understand what the spin configuration of a group of atoms is. So, we are still at the little baby steps.

But, we are also just now taking the first steps toward engineering a spin system at the atomic scale. It will say, "Okay, we want it to cost more energy to flip the spin on this atom and make cost less energy to flip the spin on this other atom." We are almost there.

Once we learn how to engineer systems like that, then we take a big step toward being able to demonstrate the kinds of things required to do computation.

I promise you IBM will not ship a spin cascade computer this year.

[Eigler discusses IBM's approach to facing Moore's Law here.]

El Reg: Anyone dabbling in nanotechnology these days seems required to frighten us with a "what if" scenario. What have you got for us along those lines?

DE: A lot of people may not be comfortable with it, but we are definitely heading in the direction of having implantable electronics - things that we have that go into our bodies that are valuable to us. We're going to want them. Society will become ultimately comfortable with it.

This is in some ways not new. Pacemakers are not a point of dispute anymore. As soon as grandma has a pacemaker, then society suddenly becomes comfortable with it because we love having granny around. Well, I could very easily see in the future that we're going to want to carry around certain pieces of information with us, and we're not going to want to worry about security or leaving them behind. So, we will want that implanted in our bodies.

We may want something more than that. We may want onboard computational power. We might not want to worry about batteries running down. We might want to be able to power up our onboard computational power just by eating. We will have to learn ways to take the chemical power in our blood and convert that to useful electrical energy.

A lot of this might sound like Sci-Fi, but if you think about where the world is going and what manufacturing small structures may allow us to do, it becomes less and less Sci-Fi and more and more real, especially when you realize the first steps have already been taken.

El Reg: How many decades are we talking about here for something like this to appear?

DE: Don't hold your breath.

But I'm just using this as one example of an area that you can see just blossoming on the back of the knowledge we are creating today.

I think the enthusiasm behind nanotechnology is largely warranted. The reason is that every time we learn how to build something, how to do something, how to interact with something on a length scale that we have not had access to in the past - something really good comes from it. That is just our history. ®

Offsite links

You can find Eigler's bio here and a bit more on the I-B-M atom spelling here.

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