Patrick Cox

The rate of technological change is accelerating.

Yes, I know. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating. The reason is that we tend to assume that progress will continue as an upward sloping straight line. It won’t, in fact, it will be much more rapid – even exponential at times.

Think about the changes in computer technology we’ve seen in the last few years. Computers have been getting cheaper and faster in relatively predictable ways for a while now.

Don’t be lulled.

The electronics and computing industries are getting primed for a massive transformation in the years ahead. Quantum technologies that were only theories in scientific journals just a few years ago are being prototyped in labs now. These new components will change the way we live forever. They will also create transformational profit opportunities. If you missed the chance to buy into the computer industry when it was young, this is a second shot.

Currently, the mainstream electronics industry processes data by moving bunches of electrons about in huge batches. Think of the components in your PC as electrical plumbing. Data are usually stored as batches of electrons. Imagine your computer’s hard drive as a bunch of very small buckets, some full of water, some not. This will change.

Improved materials technologies from emerging nanosciences are allowing us to replace batches of electrons with the smallest individual unit: the electron. As a result, computers will work at far higher speeds. Additionally, far less electricity will be required to do the same amount of work.

Much of this exciting news is being ignored by the market. It’s an unfortunate truth that investors often lose sight of long-term opportunities to create wealth because they get distracted by the short-term noise and news in the markets. When it comes to big transformational technologies, don’t worry about timing. The returns that disruptive technologies yield justify getting in early.

Quantum Superposition

One important quantum effect that will be used in future generations of computer technology is “quantum superposition.” In a nutshell, this means that a quantum particle can exist in multiple states and everything in between at the same time. This is because a quantum particle, such as an electron, behaves as both a particle and a wave.

Have you heard of the particle wave theory? In practical terms, it means that bizarre and counterintuitive effects occur on very small scales, and they can be harnessed.

This “quantum superposition” effect will, for example, utterly transform how we do “computer math.” Currently, nearly everything done by computers is done in binary. The smallest piece of information a computer handles, the bit, is either one or zero, something or nothing. A quantum computer, though, would be able to store and work with number systems other than binary.

This means computers would become exponentially more powerful because each “quantum bit” (qubit) could store a much greater range of numbers than the two that binary math restricts us to. Imagine a laptop with the computing power of the world’s 10 most powerful supercomputers. Then you begin to grasp the potential of quantum computing.

Decoding Quantum Encryption

Quantum computing also offers the means of making our communications and business transactions far more secure than they are today. Quantum cryptography exploits several remarkable effects of “quantum entanglement.” One is the ability to generate pairs of utterly unique and unbreakable keys. Basically, two random but identical particle keys can be created using entanglement. Since reading a quantum particle alters it, any effort to eavesdrop on communication is detected and that communication is either disrupted or ended.

Using this technology, we can create completely secure communications networks. Recently, Toshiba’s R&D labs announced the successful testing of quantum cryptography over fiber-optic networks. Austrians were able to send entangled photons between two Spanish islands nearly 90 miles apart.

Spintronics

One of the likeliest quantum technologies to go mainstream is the field of spintronics. This is the exploitation of different electron states. The only property of the electron that we use in electronics now is charge. Electrons, however, have another property called “spin.” Because we can change and read this spin, it can be used to compute. Already, the tech giants are investing in this technology. And there’s a reason.

I’ve written a lot about HP’s work on memristor technology. Memristors are going to provide the next great leap in computer technology. HP has been making rapid and well publicized advances. It could, in fact, have product on the market next year. This initially concerned me because HP is too big to get us anything close to a memristor pure play.

Fortunately, memristors can be built using techniques other than HP’s. My associate Ray Blanco has been poring through patents and tech journals. What he’s found is enormously exciting.

Basically, a number of other groups have made similar memristor advances using different technologies. One is based on spintronics. The big question now, however, is not which of these technologies will emerge as the best solution. The question we’re looking at today is who will build these new components. Who, in effect, will be the Intel of the future?

Regards,
Patrick Cox

June 5, 2009

Patrick Cox
  • rancherlady

    Dear Patrick:

    Your fascinating article made me whimper with insecurity due to ignorance and leaves me with one big question: if we over on the “Katy, bar the door!” side are right and we’re going to face a time of tribulation and possibly the Anti-Industrial Revolution, will the survivors make do with current technology, or do you think the new technology will emerge triumphant? It certainly sounds like something I’d be interested in were this 1981, but in 2009 I tend to buy coffee, alcohol, ammo, and silver. Will this, like HDTV render my shiny new computer with Vista (which I loathe so much I’m working on my five-year-old Dell which has XP) inoperable?

    Adapt or die is the rule in business, so I’ll hope for more articles that put this in terms we kindergarteners can understand. I don’t know if you’ll laugh or clutch your aching head, but they lost me in Physics the first day when the instructor said, “Electricity goes through wires like buckets of water go through the pipe,” a concept that STILL makes no sense to me. Is it pour-space-pour or do the buckets clog up at the bottom? When the electricity in alternating current runs back into the wall does it go through my meter twice? You only think I’m joking. I always look at a cord I have unplugged dubiously, never certain if there is still a little trickle of electricity in there or not…On the other hand, I think Egyptian hieroglyphics are simple and that the easiest thing in the world is to teach a small child to read. I’m not hopeless, just ignorant.

    I did enjoy your excitement and what I grasped, thanks.

    LBT

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  • Hurricane

    IT’s either going to be us or China. China has been reverse engineering for a long time and they simply have more manpower to throw at certain scenarios. Be very concerned when China decides to do a big technology project.

    The real question is who will build it?

    If we don’t bring back some kinda of manufacturing base into this country we are going to decline. I wished we stop focusing on Detroit and think about new things to builds; important things like microchips and electronic components. Using our material sciences to create new special materials that we create in this country?

    In 10 years what we lug around as laptops will fit inside a watch. Are we going to be one to benefit from that technology?

  • rick.s

    I’m actually on a technological level similar with Mrs. Traynham. This stuff sounds extremely interesting, but I don’t understand it. D.C. current I get, it runs my vehicles and I’m a decent shade tree mechanic on vehicles produced in the pre-unleaded gasoline age. A.C. is still a mystery to me. One of my former co-workers (who was also a journeyman electrician) tried to explain to me how the stairway light switches work (you know, the ones that you turn on going up, and turn off at the top of the stairs) I still don’t understand the principal and still prefer to believe it’s some kind of magic.

    The point is Mr. Cox, you are putting great information forth, and thank you for it. It’s just that some of us don’t understand the mechanics of it, even though we sort of kind of get the general drift.

    One thing Mrs. Traynham, if you can remember, the last time a Dem was elected president the same paranoid nonsense occurred with the ammo market, which elevated the price for a while. I bought into it then, but don’t now. I also still have most of what I stocked up on then now. Mr. O (I refuse to acknowledge him as a legit president until he produces his actual birth certificate) has a lot to deal with giving the current state of the economy rather than go after our guns/ammo. And, there is the Heller decision of last year, the only chagrin is that it was a 5-4 decision instead of the 9-zip it should have been.

  • Phil E. Drifter

    Rick.S: Your comment makes me embarrassed to share the human race with you. Do you really think that Obama somehow fooled the entire country into allowing him to become president even though he’s not a US citizen? Get over yourself. He was born in Hawaii. Hawaii is a US state; ergo, Obama is a US citizen.

    Stop trying to cloak your racism in patriotism. (It doesn’t matter, both parties are corrupt.) You really think McCain, who was selected by the RNC as the ‘front runner’ for the 2k8 elections, mysteriously got old over night? If all these people were really so sure about him during the primaries, why weren’t they paying attention to it then? He was selected by the RNC because he’s the next to die.

    By the way, for the record, McCain was born in Panama. Sure, it was in a US Consulate, technically deemed ‘US territory’ but his father was an Admiral serving in that location. Anyway, it could be argued that McCain isn’t a US citizen since he was born in Central America.

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