Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Intel's 'Nano Inside'

Intel says it's now a master of the 65-nanometer domain. But are these nanochips truly "nanotechnology?" I was surprised when "Engines of Creation" and "Nanosystems" author Eric Drexler -- whom I had assumed to be a molecular manufacturing purist -- told me he thought they qualified.

"People sometimes perceive me as saying, 'Oh, you shouldn't use the term this new way,'" Drexler told me in October. "What I've actually been saying is we need to understand that it's being used in a new way ... that has a certain relationship to the field."

Drexler's not only glad to have Intel aboard, he's been buddying around with Paolo Gargini, director of technology strategy for Intel.

But here's the real reason he's welcoming the chip industry to his nano lair (and these are my words, not his): It's a great gateway drug for the general public. If consumers think of Intel's tiny chips as "nanotechnology," then that can replace the negative images of far-away or far-fetched doomsday scenarios being planted elsewhere. If just a simple leap beyond the nano barrier can enable faster, cheaper computing devices with cooler graphics, just think what molecular or quantum computing will bring.

"I think it should be made very clear to everyone that today's Intel chips are, according to the official definition, 'nanotechnology.' There's nanotechnology in your laptop. Are you afraid of your laptop, other than because of the operating system?" he grinned.

This line of argument does beat the ongoing nanotech "debate," which sounded a bit like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" when I heard Drexler describe it:

    "People who are uncomfortable with the long-term (consequences) would say, 'No, that's not real, that's impossible.' Those who understand that it's real, it is possible would say, 'This is real, this is possible.' The press would hear this as, 'It's imminent,' and you'd go around again because people would say, 'It's hype, it's not imminent.' Well, no one said it was imminent. We said it was possible ... "

Drexler optimistically placed this vaudevillian level of debate in the past tense, but I'm not sure we've quite moved on yet.

Back to the Intel story. If you're curious about "strained silicon," which is the "nano inside" Intel's new chips, Small Times' Jack Mason was well ahead of the pack with this report from September 2002. At the time, Cientifica's Tim Harper called it "physics rather than nanotechnology."

Physics? He's our shortstop, and we're not even talking about him.