In Part 1 of our Computer Learning Month blog we looked at the fascinating history of the computer, dating all the way back to the 1600’s. Today we look forward, exploring the staggering potential of this rapidly advancing technology.
Today's computers use transistors and semiconductors to control electricity. Future computers might instead use sub-atomic particles, organic material, or light. These advanced computers might be so small we won’t even be able to see them. They may “live” inside our body, or our clothes, or in the walls of our home. Computerized functionality will be infused into every aspect of our lives.
The Internet of Things
If a single computer can do amazing things, a whole network of computers can change our lives. Networking and communication between computer systems is already propelling us into the wave of the future. One day soon, everything will be computerized and interconnected.
Wikipedia defines the Internet of Things (IoT) as “the network of physical devices, vehicles, and other items embedded with software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enable these objects to collect and exchange data.” In the practical sense, it’s your phone talking to your car, which talks to your house – or any number of other central objects in your life. Recently researchers have made enormous breakthroughs in enabling all objects to communicate, bringing about the “seamless intelligence” revolution.
The IoT isn’t just for your appliances and gadgets. Machine components can also be networked via the Internet. Forbes provides examples such as jet airplane engines or oil rig drills, and says “if it has an on and off switch, then chances are it can be a part of the IoT.” The analyst firm Gartner forecasts that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide this year, and that number will reach 20.4 billion by 2020.
How will we use the IoT? Let’s say your car is smart and connected, so it talks to your calendar to find out where you have to go each day, and then calculates the best route for you. It might text your ETA to the people you’re planning to meet. Your alarm clock could tell your coffee maker when to start brewing. Your printer could automatically order more ink when the cartridge is low.
On a broader scale, networked buildings and systems in cities, schools, or governments could generate an almost unimaginable number of efficiencies, saving time and energy, while reducing mistakes.
The field of bio-computing is multi-dimensional. Fractal.org defines a bio-computer as one that functions like a living organism or contains organic elements. A report in The Journal of Biotechnology described it as a microcomputer implanted in the body, specifically for medical applications. Computer Science Degree Hub says it’s any and all of the above – a bio-computer can either contain biological components, or operate inside an organic organism… like a human, for example!
In fact, we already have natural supercomputers inside us. DNA molecules, which contain genetic code, have been harnessed to perform complex mathematical problems. Even though computer chips are getting smaller, faster, and more miraculous all the time, silicon microprocessors will eventually reach the limits of that material’s capabilities. On the other hand, DNA molecules have the potential to perform calculations many times faster than today’s most powerful silicon-based computers.
DNA-powered bio-computers can theoretically be constructed to hold exponentially more data than a silicon-based computer. Today’s computers must be programmed for every reaction, but biologically-based computers could actually “learn” and expand their functionality, by evaluating data and results as they work.
The medical type of bio-computer would be small enough for us to swallow or to be implanted in our bodies. This science is sometimes known as “nanotechnology” because of the tiny size of the mechanisms. Nano technically means “one billionth.” Bio-computers placed in our organs, cells, or blood stream will be made from particles 50,000 times smaller than a human hair.
Theoretically, these nano-computers could monitor body function, hunt for defective genes, or find and cure disease. For instance, many genetic diseases are the result of faulty DNA. A computer system that can isolate the faulty “code” can perhaps be engineered to also fix it! Bio-computers can be designed as an array of biosensors, each with the ability to detect or target specific types of cells. The sensors could perform target-specific operations, and deliver medical remedies, according to doctors’ instructions. This type of science will also produce significant breakthroughs in the field of prosthetics.
Today’s computer data is in bits, using a binary system in which every bit has a value of either 1 or 0. Quantum computing exponentially expands the potential of computing by applying quantum mechanics, and measuring data in qubits instead of bits.
So what’s a qubit? Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer. Quantum-anything is pretty hard to wrap our brains around, because it deals in subatomic particles, such as electrons or photons, which don’t necessarily follow the previously-accepted laws of physics. To dive deeper into qubits and how they enable quantum computing, read more on Wikipedia.
Imagine the mathematical complexity of subatomic bits of matter that can have more than one property at one time, or different properties depending upon the conditions they’re in or the materials they’re near. Electrons that go through two different holes at the same time? Even Einstein had a hard time with it. Watch this cool video to see a demonstration of the basic nature of quantum mechanics.
When we apply quantum mechanics to computing, we use qubits of data that can exist in a “superposition” of multiple states at the same time. Therefore, the computer can theoretically perform a billion or more copies of a computation at the same time. With this capability, quantum computers can search through huge amounts of data much more quickly than today’s standard computer.
Scientists can also conduct virtual experiments on a quantum computer, because it can model quantum systems. For example, we could model the behavior of atoms and particles under unusual conditions, without needing to create those conditions. Or we could study the interactions among atoms in a computerized model of a chemical reaction.
Future computers may also utilize light particles called photons, controlling those photons with crystals and metamaterials (“metamaterials” are engineered specifically to have properties not found in nature). Photons are an excellent choice for speeding up processing time, because light moves so quickly – 186,000 miles per second. In a billionth of a second, one nanosecond, photons of light travel almost a foot.
Like the other types of computers we’ve been discussing, optical computers don’t yet exist. However, the Future for All website points out that electro-optical hybrids have been possible since 1978, when scientists learned that photons can respond to electrons through media such as lithium niobate. These hybrid computers may also incorporate organic molecules, which are more light-sensitive than inorganics, and which can perform certain functions more quickly, using less power.
Pretty impressive stuff, right? And yet, given the rate of progress in the computer science field, we can’t even imagine what might be possible, maybe even in our lifetime. In one article we read, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon has been 3D-printing heart tissue. He uses engineering techniques to create living organisms. So what’s the definition of digital, versus organic? Someday soon, we may be reevaluating what exactly it means to be human.
Will You Bring the World the Next BIG THING in Computing?
If you’re fascinated with technology and eager to try your hand at innovation, try flexing your technical muscles at Envision’s summer career camps for high school visionaries:
NYLF Engineering and Technology – Start building a better future over 8 incredible days on the campus of a top-ranked engineering school, where you’ll gain hands-on experience with state-of-the-art technology and apply your engineering skills to construct sustainable solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems. Workshops include activities like programing a microprocessor to fly a model helicopter.
NYLF Business Innovation – Held on the campus of the prestigious Yale University, this program helps you kick-start your career as an entrepreneur and innovator. Learn from business gurus, and compete against other business-minded high school students in a “shark tank” experience.
Game and Technology Academy – Level-up your game design skills while using the latest next-gen design technologies in state-of-the-art labs and learning from game design and technology professionals and subject matter experts.
Younger students (elementary and middle grades) can check out NYLF Pathways to STEM and NYLF Explore STEM.