Nanotechnology and Moore’s Law

View 828, Monday, June 09, 2014

John Quincy Adams on American Policy:

Whenever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

Fourth of July, 1821


Monday Afternoon, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

The morning session of the nanotechnology conference – officially the 30th Anniversary meeting of the Solid State Sensors, Actuators, and Microsystems Workshop – started intensely and stayed that way. Highly technical. The theme of the 1994 meeting was “When will Solid State Sensors take over the world?” The theme for this year is “Solid State Sensors have taken over the world. Where will we be in 2044?”

I was reminded of one of the early Pournelle’s Laws, “Silicon is cheaper than iron,” which caused me to predict that silicon mass storage memory would soon take over from spinning metal. After all, in those days, “mass storage” for most of us consisted of 64 K – that’s 64 Kilobyte – floppy disks. I had an early Honeywell Bull 5 megabyte hard disk; it was in a stand alone cabinet about the size of a two drawer file cabinet, and when it was turned on the house lights blinked. It seemed to me obvious that silicon memory system would soon be much faster, have more storage capacity, and be much cheaper than hard disks. Of course that didn’t happen. Silicon got cheaper, but as computer chips got cheaper and more powerful they allowed better robot control of the fabrication of spinning metal disks, and the faster software allowed much better data separation getting far more bits/mm of disk track, and soon there appeared 5” hard drives of 5, then 50, and then 300 megabyte capacity. I have a 500 Kilobyte magnetic bubble memory card from those days. It was much faster than a Winchester hard drive, but it was only half a megabyte. Now, recently, I have acquired huge capacity silicon drives which are faster than spinning metal, and the spinning metal disk is economically doomed; but it has been about 30 years since I made that prediction. I was right on the outcome of the race, but I sure didn’t expect it to take 30 years.

So now solid state sensors and actuators have taken over the world. No longer do we use the old ink needles on flowing paper to do EKG and Electro Encephalograph and such. It’s all being modernized.

My last intense and up close experience with the world of sensors was when my friend Eph Konigsberg was still alive and Konigsberg Instruments was working at the frontier of the technology. The company is still at the frontier, but I don’t know anyone there now. Eph kept me informed on what was going on in solid state sensors and the world of medical technology. I’ve lost touch since his passing, and I sure miss him.

But the world of solid state sensors – read practical nanotechnology – goes on. Oliver Paul of the University of Freiberg reported on the state of the art in sensors for brain activities. Start with the brain: 10^14 interconnections of 10^11 neurons running on 15 Watts of power. That’s what we are studying. We have 250,000 cochlear implants which do for the totally deaf what hearing aids do for the partially deaf; 130,000 spinal cord stimulators; 17,000 implanted vagus nerve stimulators. Probes get more efficient and smaller in a kind of “Moore’s Law” with a doubling time of 7.4 years. This leads to prediction of having 10^11 electrode sensors in 2240.

Of course that assumes that this is a normal exponential curve. As we showed in The Strategy of Technology, technological progress goes in ogives or S-curves.


It is not only possible, but likely, that solid state sensors (and nanotechnology in general are still in the beginning stages and have not reached the sharply rising section of the S-curve. Moore’s Law is reaching the top of the S-curve in present computer technology, as we approach limits to the number of transistors that can be put into a chip. That is clearly not the case with solid state sensors, and it is possible – some would say probable – that this new sensor technology will approach the 1.5 year doubling time we have experienced with computers. (And computer technology will probably begin a new ogive of effectiveness and lower costs).

There were many other papers, and it is clear that the entire “nanotechnology” technological field is on an S Curve with doubling time in the range of 3 to 8 years, and it is quite possible that those times will come down.

This conference has the feel of some of the early computer conferences in the 80’s. There are differences. A much larger proportion of the attendees are Orientals. There is also a larger proportion of women, both Oriental and Western. Unlike in the early computer days when girl geeks sought to look as much like guys as possible, and wore jeans and tennis shoes and baggy sweaters, these women dress like women, most quite fashionably. There are more skirts than trousers, and as many high heels as flats and sandals. The days of blending in by dressing like guys is gone, I suspect much to the relief of guys and dolls alike. And of course several of the papers were presented by women team leaders, several in skirts and heels. None of which detracts from the serious nature of the conference and the subject. Apparently in the highly technical world of nanotechnology a real degree of equality of the sexes has been achieved; at least that’s my observation from having been around in the early days of the computer revolution, and now this conference.

I have little doubt that the effect of these people on society will be as great as the computer revolution has been on the old society prior to the eighties. Not just in prosthetics, where a good deal of effort is concentrated just now. The old methods of trying to “read thoughts” have been given a new start with the new technologies. I have used “computer implants” in several of my science fiction stories, notably Starswarm and Oath of Fealty ; I always imagined that such things would be possible, although I did not know or try to predict just what technologies would lead to their implementation. It’s still not clear which technology will prevail, but it is becoming clear that a human/computer interface at least as good as described in Oath of Fealty and probably as good as in Starswarm will happen, perhaps as soon as 2044. Or so I have been persuaded by the progress papers I have seen so far.

For those looking toward future careers, I can say that this field of nanotechnology — Solid State Sensors, Actuators, and Microsystems – has much of the excitement and ferment of the early days of the computer revolution and I think a very great potential. People are going to get rich out of this, and others will have great scientific achievements. Some will have both, but not all; but that’s another story for another time. There will be no lack of employment for those able to do the technical work; not just research grants, but commercial product development. Think Silicon Valley starting up again.

And now it’s time for a walk. I have no idea what’s going on in the outside world. The isolation here is complete. I could spoil all that by getting the Wall Street Journal on line, but I think I will wait to do that until after I have walked on the beach.








Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.