Monday, April 7, 2008

Nano Ideas

These are some ideas I had several months back, but now that I am beginning to see the implementation of my idea, it is time to write it down, lest no one ever believe that I thought of this long before it came to pass. Well, ok, I guess three months isn't so long, but you get the idea. You read it here first.

The thought I had came from speculation about what the ideal cell phone would look like and how it might work. For one thing, I have always loved the idea of a cell phone, but have never been completely satisfied with the devices I have so far used. This is because they've been too big, or not big enough or mostly, simply too fragile to withstand the kind of everyday use I intend for them. I saw on the television yesterday that the average life of a cellphone is 18 months. That sounds about right.

Well, in the 'future' they will not even have to last more than a day. Or, say the length of time you might wear a shirt, or any other common piece of clothing. This is because the phone will actually be a part of your clothing.

I see it as being in the collar, but of course it might be anywhere in the garment. In the garment? yes, it will be woven in to the fabric, right at the factory, even before it gets made into a shirt or a pair of pants or hat or whatever. The 'phone' will actually be a nanoprocessor (ie much smaller than a microprocessor, those behemoths of the past), in the form of a very fine thread or nonofiber.

This thread will actually be composed of several nanofibers, twisted together. This combination is not only so we can manipulate the tiny fibers in the manufacturing process, but by combining several fibers into a thread, we can 'build' custom nanoprocessors that will be both specific to certain tasks (like a phone) and programmable to a certain extent so we can 'activate' it and 'tune' it to our specific frequency for secure private use, for example.

If we imagine that in a conventional microprocessor and the accompanying circuit board onto which they are mounted to allow for multiple functionalities (like audio and video), each process that is carried out is a single thread or path through the processor. Using information in the form of electricity moving at the speed of light, the device carries out hundreds of thousands of these process or threads in milliseconds, and the combination of processes is what we then perceive to be the function of the computer, like video display or audio. This much is familiar territory. Imagine though, that each process, instead of being 'pushed' through the 'general' pathways of the microprocessor, is 'extracted' in the form of a single nanofiber that performs only that process, no matter how individualized.

This seems like an extraordinary waste of material, when the microprocessor, big though it is, handles the information in a sort of generic way, like the way a calculator allows you to add up any series of numbers. But nanofibers are so small, that even if all the combinations for the calculator were extracted into individual fibers and the fibers were woven into a thread, the resulting mass would be an order of magnitude smaller than the calculator. The same thing is going to be true of micro vs nanoprocesors. The small size allows for the extraction and recombination of an almost infinite variety of processes, so that ultimately, processors could be grown to specification.

I say 'grown' to specification because I think the manufacturing process will more resemble an organic hothouse than a mechanical factory. I think that the model for how these fibers will be built and espcially recombined to form processors is DNA. Now this is the part that prompts me to write, because I had this thought, as I said, several months ago, and just last month I read that researchers at Texas A&M (of course) had performed an experiment that sounded just like what I had imagined on my own.

So, if we can call to mind the DNA helical model, we can identify a few key elements, not as specific chemical compounds, but as the 'building blocks' that interlock to form the structure of the molecule. Imagine that the nanofibers are in fact the outer 'rails' of the DNA molecule, with 'ports' formed at regular intervals. The ports are designed with specific shapes, or openings, into which the 'building blocks' or functional elements of the processor will fit.

These 'functional elements' are in fact analogs to the transistors, capacitors and diodes that are fixed in or onto a microprocessor and which are used, over and over, in different orders, as various processes are carried out. In the nanoprocessor, though, each process has it's own thread (two nanofibers plus the functional elements) that is specific to that process and no other.

The functional elements are 'custom-built' into the helical fiber in the manufacturing process. Imagine that all of the nanoelements are manufactured (for the 'how' of this, we will come back:) and dumped into a pan full of liquid. To this mixture, we add the nanofibers and stir. The liquid is electrically charged and voila, the functional elements are all 'attracted' to their 'appropriate' ports, and they interconnect because the elements themselves have ports that allow them to connect with and lock into other elements. In other words, it's like cultivating bacteria in a petri dish. With the appropriate chemistry and electrical stimulation, we will be able to manufacture devices that function in much the same way life does at the molecular level.

Now, once they are made, these threads would be collected and woven, individually or in series, into fabric that could, in turn, be worn as an article of clothing or carried as an accessory (purse, umbrella). These threads could be so inexpensive that they could be integrated into these objects even if they were never actually used. That is, they would be there should you have the need for their function but if not, well, you'd never even see them. A key ability for the user will be to 'program' or activate the processor and, more importantly, to 'tune' the device to be used exclusively by the owner/wearer.

It would work like this. The thread will be woven, let's say, into the collar of my shirt when I buy it. When I get home, if I want to make use of the cell phone function, I would, even after I put it on, if I wish, use a handheld device to connect with and activate the processor, 'program' it as a phone (ie, give it my number), then 'tune' it to the exact frequency of my aural nerve, so that only I can here the incoming sound.

Now, since every shirt will have several 'generic' or programmable threads woven into it at the manufacturing step, it is likely that most of them will never get used, or at least not for long, as they will wear out, it will be necessary to have another 'controlling' device that stores the personal data we will use to program and tune the thread as needed. This can be a very small object, 'woven' from a large enough number of threads to be not only visible, but large enough to allow them to be integrated into objects we already carry with us or have near us most of the time.

For example, the controlling device could be a part of my wedding ring, or built into my money clip. The device could go in my glasses, except I'd likely lose it way too often! Having the personal data stored thus in a small object that we have on or near or person would make it possible then to connect to the phone, or audio player in my shirt. Or, if you want to watch a video, or use the internet, you can use it in conjunction with a video display, at home, or in a cafe. Just sit down next to the display and 'tune' your device to connect with it.

Now, to be clear, my prescient observation not that nanofibers will be used to make the next generation of electronic devices, because that is obvious. No, I think the real innovation is the idea that DNA will be the model for these devices. The A&M scientists clearly concur, as their recent experiment demonstrated that DNA molecules can be used as 'molds' into which nanomaterials can be placed in order to form structures. At this point, as I understand it, the researchers have not yet made a device, but have shown that the manufacturing process will make use of the molecular structure of the helix in the formation of such devices.

Ok, it's the first step. And maybe, just maybe, they thought of the idea first. But it is proof to me, anyway, of the power of the mind to think of solutions to problems independent of the ability to test those hypotheses. In other words, I can't prove any of this now, but someday, you'll say you read it here first!

Edit 5.4.08: Nokia has some of the right ideas!

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