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Coming -- Programmable Matter

Information systems will see the first applications.

By Patrick Thibodeau
April 26, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - To really understand the future, you have to suspend disbelief and imagine for a moment that software isn't just code on a screen; it's also matter. It's physical—as real as the chair you are sitting in. And it's programmable.

Programmable matter. It's a world that researchers such as Richard Minn, an electrical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are building—one artificial atom at a time. An early beneficiary of this work could be information systems.

At a NIST lab in Boulder, Colo., Minn is using a quantum dot, also known as an artificial atom because of its capability to hold an electron in place. In this case, the electron is placed around a positively charged particle. They combine, annihilate each other and emit a photon, the smallest pulse of light.

It's a process that can be controlled to create a "photon on demand," or something akin to a binary on/off switch. This ability to control the release of photons could have applications in an area of computer security called quantum cryptography. The government is interested in it because the use of photons encoded in "quantum states" to communicate between a sender and receiver is "unconditionally secure." If there is any eavesdropping or interception of the message, the transmission will be altered, which ensures detection.

NIST, as well as researchers in corporate and academic labs, are working with atoms and subatomic particles, the building blocks of all matter, to develop quantum cryptography and other technologies.

In short, the software itself is the material structure: It is the configuration of the molecules, atoms and electrons. Change their fundamental properties, and the software is changed.

"In order to program at this level, you have to move the matter—there is just no way around it," says James C. Ellenbogen, senior principal scientist at Mitre Corp.'s Nanosystems Group in McLean, Va. For Ellenbogen, this is "matter as software."

Programming Matter
Image Credit: Paul Howalt

Making something work at nanoscales pushes current technology to its limits and beyond. Chemists have long known how to synthesize chemicals at an atomic level, but combining chemicals alone doesn't make a computer.

"Our strategy has been to make some very simple chemical systems that self-assemble and then essentially electrically download complexity into those afterward," says Philip Keukes, a senior computing architect in quantum science at Hewlett-Packard Co.

HP has developed a nanoscale, molecular-based programmable device. To get an idea of what it looks like, imagine a sandwich. One layer is wiring that is approximately 40 nm across—a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter—going north and south. The peanut butter in this sandwich is a layer of chemically created molecules, and then another layer of wires crosses east and west.

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