It is now possible to put the computational power of former supercomputers on a tiny chip of silicon and embed that system in virtually any household product. In that sense, the future of computing has already arrived.
However, the electronics industry, and the public along with it, have become a bit blinded by the success of this single technology. Other critical areas of information technology have not developed as fast. Displays, chip and system packaging, interconnect within and between systems, power supplies-in short, everything needed to build a workable product-have not enjoyed the blazing development speed of circuit technology.
And, in projecting possible future scenarios for current technology, it might be salutary to consider the proposition that the 21st century will not see a pressing need for billion-transistor circuits. Silicon in the year 2000 can be compared to steam power in the year 1900. Both had been disruptive technologies of their ages, developed at unexpected speeds, and both have transformed virtually all areas of life. At the beginning of the last century, however, hobbyists were tinkering with faster, lighter-weight personal transportation systems such as gas-powered automobiles and flying machines. It's true that there was no pressing need for such products, but they caught on anyway-by capturing the imaginations of leading industrialists, not to mention that of the buying public. Completely new forms of energy such as electric power were also brewing in industrial research labs.
It turned out that steam power was irrelevant to the rapid development of the 20th century's personal gadgets-cars, telephones, refrigerators, radios, TV-and in the final decade of the century, the advent of the information appliance. Likewise, in the coming decades perhaps more natural interfaces to a global communications network or "neuromorphic" personal assistants will suddenly be perceived as the crucial technology.
|Mary Lou Jepsen at MicroDisplay Corp. is concerned that computer speed is outpacing the capabilities of current display technology. Her cure: LCOS, a blend of silicon and low-cost liquid crystals. |
In this selection of papers from the upcoming conference "Critical Technologies for the Future of Computing," to be held July 31 through Aug. 4 at the San Diego Convention Center, we will be looking at some of the new technologies that may prove pivotal in the development of information appliances. Optical processing and interconnect, new display technologies that are gaining in popularity, and attempts to redefine the current digital paradigm of binary digital computing are some of the exciting new developments that have yet to gain center stage but may turn out to be crucial in the coming decades.
Developing on a broad front, these critical technologies could begin to level the playing field dominated by digital silicon chips.
As Mary Lou Jepsen, chief technology officer at MicroDisplay Corp. (San Pablo, Calif.), observed on a visit to Stanford University's computer graphics lab, "These researchers have much faster computers every year, but have reached the point where they are being severely limited in what they can achieve by the state of display technology." Jepsen suggests that the blending of silicon chips with liquid-crystal display technology could result in a fundamentally new type of interface device. Rather than merely presenting information in graphical form, the new interface devices would actively track body movements to provide a much more responsive "window" into a computing system or network.
This marriage of display and circuit technology represents only one possible direction out of a wide number of possibilities. For example, Lenny Lipton, chief technology officer at StereoGraphics Corp. (San Rafael, Calif.), explains how liquid-crystal shutter technology combined with wireless techniques has produced a new generation of stereographic video displays that have become essential in areas like molecular modeling and medical imaging.
Equally significant is the attempt to expand computer output options with "3-D printing" that can produce physical prototypes directly from CAD data.