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Snapshots from the World of Innovation

Oct. 10, 2008
Our Resident 'Futurologist' Speculates on the Future of Disk Drives, Nanobots, and High-Frequency Sounds That Cut Both Ways

By Jeff Harrow

“Old” Doesn’t Mean “Dead”

Hard drives should never work. The heads on a modern disk drive fly a scant 12 billionths of a meter (nanometer) above the surface of a platter (for comparison a human hare is about 40,000 nanometers in diameter). They read and write individual magnetic “spots” so tiny that ten trillion of them fit on a single 3.5-inch disc. Quite amazing, really, especially since their reliability is pretty good (they only fail at the worst possible moments).

But their days must be numbered, what with the ramping-up of SSD (Solid State Disk) plug-in replacements. No moving parts, no latency (the time it takes a hard drive to move its heads physically to the correct track) to slow things down, and catching up in the area of sustained read/write speed. What’s not to like – except for the still-considerable cost, which we know will plummet over time?

To me the demise of the hard disk dinosaur is a given, just as the vacuum tubes’ glow softly faded away (for general applications) once its solid-state successor matured. But the question is ‘when.’

The death of hard disk drives has been heralded many times over the past two decades as the technology approached one or another density “limit” that “could not” be breached. Of course, brilliant people who refused to accept that party line came up with ways through or around every bottleneck that got in the way, keeping the price performance of hard disk drives so good that SSDs have only recently begun to be a viable replacement. And this story is not yet over.

Most recently, engineers have rotated the jellybean-shaped magnetic “spots” on a contemporary disk drive platter so that they are crowded together vertically like a bunch of number two pencils with their “ends” closer together than otherwise. That’s one reason that this year’s disk drives have shown an increase in areal density of more than 100%. And that packing density may yet improve to as much as a 400% increase.

Coming up, we can expect hard disk media to resemble an egg crate as the media is patterned into individual “cups” that help hold each magnetic domain separate, allowing them to be crowded even closer together. This alone could lead to 1.5 terabyte, 2.5-inch notebook drives by 2010, rising to 4 terabytes a few years later. And beyond that there’s “thermally assisted recording,” where a laser heats an even smaller spot so that its magnetic one or zero can easily be written. But its value won’t change when it’s cool, so this technique holds the potential to yield as much as twelve terabytes of storage on a notebook-sized drive.

Pretty impressive for a mechanical technology that common sense says “shouldn’t” be able to work in the first place.

But most important, the hard drive’s story is a reminder that innovation can continuously breathe new life into many products or systems that “should” have long been retired.

Applying such innovation to our projects could yield considerable savings to our customers and to ourselves.

Cheap Workers

We’re quite good at etching structures only a few billionths of a meter (nanometer) wide into silicon, and we keep getting better. But there are many things we might like to build at the nano and micro scale that can’t be etched ― that have to be “built” by machines ― “nanobots.”

Certainly great fodder for science fiction, these tiny machines would move atoms or molecules around to purpose-build things and materials “from the ground up.” But they’re not only sci fi at all – various forms of nano machines already exist, from the atomic force microscope whose atomically sharp tip literally pushes individual atoms around, to molecular motors that take in energy and provide rotational or motive power, to molecular pumps for “labs on a chip” that move samples through a series of steps.

Fascinating accomplishments all, which will certainly lead to great things, but taking a different tack, suppose that instead of making machines to do our tiny work, we were to simply harness existing “machines” to do our bidding? MIT engineers have modified a virus’ genome so that the virus creates a minute grid of wires to form the anode of a human cell-sized battery that may eventually power micro devices!

But while micro batteries are well and good, the magic here is that we are learning to train the tiniest of living machines! As our knowledge of genetics and our ability to alter the genes of viruses and bacteria continues to evolve, so too will the complexity of the tasks that we can coerce them to perform.

(Are there potential safety and ethical issues with our tinkering with the machinery of life? Absolutely. But that’s another discussion.)

Tone Deaf

Maybe it’s the result of too many rock concerts when we were kids, or perhaps it’s just another element of aging, but most of our ears just don’t react to the higher audible frequencies like they once did. That’s usually considered a negative, preventing us from appreciating some of the fineness of music. But looked at another way it presents some interesting opportunities.

For example, “The Mosquito Group” offers an “anti-loitering” device that produces a very annoying sound pitched so high that most folks over 25 can’t hear it. The younger folks who can hear it don’t much like it and tend not to congregate in its vacinity, reducing (according to the device’s maker) graffiti and other undesirable behavior.

I don’t much like this grouping of all young people into a category that should be banished from some locations, but in the true fashion of innovation they have learned to turn this to their advantage.

TeenBuzz.org, among other sites, provides ring tones pitched so high that teens can hear them, but most teachers and parents cannot! Having been a teen myself once, I can appreciate the potentials. I can also imagine teens resurrecting Morse code and “texting” inaudibly during family dinners and tests…

Isn’t innovation great?

Don’t Blink!

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