It has been 50 years since Intel’s Gordon Moore noticed that the power of computer chips was doubling about every year. He coined this phenomenon ‘Moore’s Law’. Since then, we’ve seen enormous changes in the way the world works and in the types of technology that underpin our daily lives.
The assumption that we can rely on more computing power at less cost – and with reduced energy consumption – underpins many anticipated changes in the world, such as smart cities, self-driving cars and wearable computers.
Yet we can’t rely on existing materials to deliver the sort of performance we will need, so we need to look elsewhere. The most promising developments are coming from nanotechnology – the design, manufacture and use of materials at the scale of 1-100 nanometres (one nanometre is a billionth of a metre) to build smart fabrics, intelligent roads and new forms of computer.
Nanoparticles are already out there, in things like sunscreen and scratch-resistant coatings for glasses. For me, the exciting materials are those that can be used in computers, like graphene.
Graphene is a recently discovered form of carbon. It looks like it can support a new generation of powerful processors that run cool and fast, letting us extend the lifetime of Moore’s law by moving away from silicon-based computing.
And as that happens we can expect new possibilities to emerge, just as the move from valves to transistors transformed the sorts of electronic devices we could imagine. For example, we might have smart fabrics with sensors built in, keeping track of pulse, temperature and perspiration, and they’ll also be responsive to the environment or your activity.
But the real impact will come when we know how to build these new types of device at scale, and to deploy them in ways we can depend on. I once asked Maurice Wilkes, who in 1949 led the team that built EDSAC, one of the world’s earliest computers, what most surprised him about modern processors.
He said it was their reliability. EDSAC used 3,000 valves that were prone to burning out, so the machine would have to be repaired every few hours. In contrast, today’s processors run trillions of instructions without error. For example, the laptop I’m currently using hasn’t been rebooted for 15 days.
Before long it looks like we’ll come to depend on these strange nanomaterials for computing. Their impact may not always be positive, and it will definitely not be easily predictable. There are already concerns over the impact of some nanomaterials on the environment and on our bodies. But the new nanomaterials are coming, whether we prepare or not.