I attended the first day of the Foresight 2013 nanotechnology conference today. They have a very strict media policy in place this year since some speakers will be discussing pre-publication findings and they don’t want their publication hopes destroyed because some foolish blogger spilled the beans. So I am not supposed to blog about anything I heard today unless it was already public. My friend Jeremy told me that most of the presentations were already public as far as he could tell, but I had the rare pleasure of chatting with some scientists who did share juicy tidbits.
For those that don’t know, the Foresight Institute is an organization devoted to promoting the upside and avoiding the dangers of transformative future technologies. Their primary focus is on nanotechnology and it’s ultimate expression: molecular manufacturing as expressed in Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” talk. And of course Drexler’s Engines of Creation developed these ideas further. So this is pretty technical stuff and the Foresight 2013 conference was the most academically focused futurist conference I have attended. Several attendees even remarked that it was more academic than previous years. I attended in 2010 for the great Moldbug/Hanson debate and again in 2011 at Google when they had a more entrepreneurial focus. I guess those were less academic. But my brain melted slightly in the blast furnace of atomic scale physics each time.
I like to challenge myself with these things, trying to absorb some fractional understanding of the work presented by these top scientists in highly specialized fields. People looked at me askance previous years when I told them I was just a layman interested in the field. This year I lamely suggested that I was a blogger of some sort and found that this was not more ingratiating given the media ban. Fortunately for me, I am shameless and slightly pushy in conversation so I manage to get my ears filled up with some amazing ideas even if I do barely comprehend them. Being a generalist, I am biased toward the idea that everyone is a laymen in fields other than their own. I hope that I can help pollinate ideas across fields with my writing some day.
Given my interest in computers, one of my favorite Foresight presentations so far this year was a talk by Purdue professor, Gerhard Klimeck about single atom transistors. Luckily, I found a similar presentation already posted on Nanohub.org, so I will talk about that. One key point worth noting is that cpu performance is really constrained by power consumption. We get more transistors but clock speed and performance per clock cycle has been pretty much flat since 2005. Which is why parallel computing is so important. But in spite of the nifty .NET tools mentioned in the link above, parallel code is still harder to write and largely under-utilized. This is something that Paul Graham has carped about with his ambitious startup idea: Bring Back Moore’s Law. And of course it smacks of Theil’s stagnation of innovation schtick. But I’m sure Ray isn’t worried. He knows a paradigm shift will save the day.
So wait, oh yeah, power consumption occurs when circuits are switched and via leakage. In fact, as much power is supposedly lost via leakage as from switching. So your CPU is constantly leaking juice. Disgusting. So these single atom transistors come riding to the rescue since they have less leakage. But Klimeck’s main contribution to this effort is the Nemo5 software which enables researchers to model “atomic-resolution calculation of nanostructure properties.” Modeling is a key enabler of all design I guess, and this Nemo software seems to have a broad range of uses from academia to industry. Good on him and his group. Where would our Singularity be without them?
I really wish I could talk more about my amazing conversations tonight, but I will just link to this one paper which is already public but whose significance has not yet been widely appreciated: Neutral Atoms Behave Much Like Classical Spherical Capacitors. If you are a super-genius, I assume it will be obvious to you why this is important. Listening to this idea connected to a bunch of other ideas gave me some glimmer of insight into the matter, but it will all be made more clear by forthcoming publications. Stay tuned to your physics news feeds, friends.