Hardware –> Software

Hardware –> Software

An interesting question was posed to my “Do the math” post of last week:

What does this have to do with nanotechnology?

A little history helps, as usual.
Eniac plugboard: Hardware or software?

The boundary between hardware and software has been fuzzy for decades, if as hardware you allow electronics. The first “silicon compiler” was introduced in 1979, and ever since, if you want to design a complex chip, you are well advised to use a design language such as VHDL or Verilog. The opposite has been happening as well — for small electronics projects you’re much better off with a PIC (“programmable IC”) microcontroller (or any of a thousand competitors) than trying to do the same thing in discrete logic.

And of course, FPGAs blur the distinction even more. The bottom line is that when you’re designing a complex system, it will probably end up looking like software, whether the ultimate implementation winds up being a physical circuit or a sequence of instructions interpreted by a processor.

The way technology is developing, almost any very complex system is very likely to have both forms of functionality in its ultimate implementation. Consider how many microcontrollers there are in your car… or your toaster.

With nanotechnology, this blurring will extend well beyond control circuits to virtually every aspect of a system. Nanocontrollers will be so small and cheap that they will be ubiquitous. At the same time, the complexity of the mechanical parts of the system will be so great that they will almost certainly have to be designed in detail by “matter compilers.”

Which means that to the designer, everything will look like software. When you design the system at the high, abstract level that a human brain can comprehend, you won’t have any idea how much of the functionality will be implemented as instruction sequences, how much by reconfigurable circuit elements, and how much by gears, levers, pulleys, and cams.

Probably the most extreme example is Utility Fog. All of the mechanical properties of a Utility Fog “object” are software-defined.

In the coming world, understanding how to write reliable software will be crucial.

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  1. Anonymous May 25, 2009 at 6:27 am - Reply

    Lately it seems threads here are becoming more about general technology and less about nanotechnology. Foresight has been one of the main places I check in the morning for nano news. I’m sad to say that since Christine has taken her break I’ve been reading less and less.

  2. J. Storrs Hall May 26, 2009 at 9:26 am - Reply

    The role of Foresight is to help foresee the possibilities inherent in transformative technologies of all kinds. The two really major game-changers in this arena are nanotech, in its original definition of working molecular machines that can build more molecular machines, and AI. Either of these would have a major effect alone, but together their potential for remaking the world is profound. It makes little sense to consider the future focused on one and not the other.

    Foresight is concerned with present-day nanotech research primarily in its role as a foundation, enabler, and steps toward the ultimate thorough, detailed control over the structure of matter at the atomic scale. Near-term incremental results in nanoscale science are valuable and interesting but are not in and of themselves transformative.

    If you are looking for a near-term nano clipping service, we’ve found AZoNano, NanoWerk, and EurekAlert Nanotech to be very good.

  3. Christine Peterson May 26, 2009 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Hi Anonymous — I should mention that the near-term nanotech posts you mention were probably mostly by Jim Lewis, our webmaster, rather than by me. ;^)
    Another good way to get near-term nano news is to get up a Google Alert on the term “nanotechnology”.

  4. Anonymous May 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Hi, can you attribute authorship on the original posts, please?

    Curently, original entries are described as follows:
    This entry was posted on Monday, May 25th, 2009 at 1:44 am and is filed under…

    No author. Now, I am willing to stipulate the possible interpretations are quite limited. Still, it is disconcerting to have to guess when an article uses terms like “my”.

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