Bytesized;The Big Picture

17th September 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Ants are noted more for their brawn - being able to lift several times their bodyweight - than their brain. In their thousands they can work wonders. But 30 years ago, a whole colony of the creatures would not have been able to carry the house-sized computer needed to store the information held on this chip.

In a colony, each of these simple-minded six-leggers becomes a member of a highly organised society, with expert nest-builders, foragers and navigators. The abilities of these colonies - how can the whole so emphatically outweigh the sum of its parts? - continue to intrigue scientists.

Maybe we could learn something from the ants. After all, the way an anthill operates - thousands of units interacting in a strictly controlled environment - is not so different from the way a computer chip works. In fact, scientists have already replicated their random search-and-find behaviour in computer programs designed to weed out system bugs. Imagine that inside this microchip is a mechanism just as complex as the ant colony. And inside that, another one. Now imagine you can manipulate the way that mechanism works and you are getting close to nanotechnology.

Everything is made of atoms. But even the most precise engineering processes can only rearrange huge chunks of them - it's a bit like playing with building blocks wearing boxing gloves. In the next century nanotechnology will let us take the gloves off, enabling us to make machines using single molecules. Already, those at the forefront of this emerging science are performing extraordinary feats - writing words with atoms and building robots five millimetres high - and talking about making computers the size of grains of sand. In another 30 years' time, devices with the computing power of this ant's cargo may be no more than a speck in this picture. It's a small world - and it's getting smaller.

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