This is the first in an occasional series of posts about The Next Era of Computing. IBM envisions a monumental shift over the coming years to a new paradigm where computing will be ubiquitous and machines will learn from their interactions with data and humans–essentially programming themselves. This quantum leap will be enabled by advances in artificial intelligence, data analytics, computing systems and nanotechnology. It will result in a smarter, better planet.
Ever since the dawn of the nanotechnology era, IBM scientists have been pushing atoms around in an effort to discover the possibilities of doing big things in the smallest of physical spaces.
It all started in 1981, when two IBM researchers, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, made nanotechnology possible by inventing the scanning tunneling microscope. The STM enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to its molecules and atoms. For their work, the two won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Four years later, IBM researcher Don Eigler used the STM to move individual atoms, writing the initials I-B-M in atoms to demonstrate the capability.
Today, scientists at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif., took nano manipulation to a new level. They revealed that they have discovered the fewest atoms that can be used to store one bit of magnetic information reliably. The answer: 12 atoms. To illustrate their discovery, they spelled out IBM’s long-time motto, “THINK,” in binary form using iron atoms oriented in columns and rows.
Their discovery points to data storage technologies that would be 100 times denser than today’s hard disk drives and 1000 times denser than today’s solid state memory chips. “It could revolutionize the way that computing uses memory and storage,” says Andreas Heinrich, the physics researcher who headed up the project.
Heinrich has been working on understanding the magnetic properties of atoms on surfaces for a decade. The research team’s technique combines the principles of quantum mechanics with traditional magnetics.
He believes their discoveries will help enable the advance of so-called quantum computing, which is different from traditional computers based on transistors. Quantum computing replaces transistors with nano-scale devices that can be used to represent data and perform operations on the data at the same time. Essentially, clusters of atoms are talking to themselves. It’s one of the means by which scientists hope to deal with the limitations of today’s semiconductors. Chip designers are bumping up against the laws of physics as they shrink transistors and other components on chips to nano-scale dimensions.
“People will look back ten years from now and say this was a game-changer,” predicts Heinrich.