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Archive for December, 2009

Stranger than Fiction: Technology And Science Fiction

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Great interview about the science fiction and its effect on technology. Spoke with Lou Anders, Sci-Fi Editorial Director at Pyr Imprints

Here was Lou’s response:

I’m interviewed today at System-Level Design Community, by the very nice John Blyler, who I got to spend some time with recently in Portland, Oregan at the recent OryCon. We talk about science fiction’s role in inspiring science, the effect science developments has on the genre, gaming, the Matrix trilogies, and genetic engineering. It was a long conversation, so he is condensing and paraphrasing some of what I said, but doing a good job of capturing a highly-caffeinated Lou and making sense of it.

Still, I’m pretty sure I never said this bit, (but I wish I had):

Anders: Maybe, but maybe not. Remember the quote by John Schaar: “The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created—created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.”

I think he’s misremembering when I quoted something I got from Robert Anton Wilson: “The future begins first in imagination, then in will, then in reality.” But I like this quote above, and now I’ve seen myself “say” it, I’ll start using it more, retroactively authenticating this usage here. (Nice one that, huh?)

We also talk some about David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy, (affording me the opportunity to try out the new integration of Amazon Associates and Blogger). Meanwhile, John was a great guy and I wish we’d had time to talk longer than we did.

Dead right, Lou, about the quote. Here’s what I transcribed from our talk:
[Lou] “Who was it who said; “The future begins first in the imagination, then in will, then in reality?” If you can’t imagine it, you can not build it.”

I was trying to find the author of that quote, which I thought might be John Schaar. I scribbled as much in my story before checking with you and sent it off the copy edit. I returned from travel to find the article online and the quote “misquoted.” My mistake, no one else’s. Sorry about that.

Did really enjoy our chat, though! Will post a couple more videos clips before Christmas. Cheers. – John

Chip Revenues Grow, but Software is the Future

Friday, December 11th, 2009

The headlines look promising for the semiconductor industry. In the latest news, Texas Instruments (TI) and Xilinx are prospering amid a rising demand for chips. TI reported that it grew 19% from a year ago, while Xilinx expects revenues to rise between 16% to20% compared to it’s second period. Other chip companies enjoying rebounds include Marvell Technology, Altera and Microchip, as recently reported in the Wall Street Journal. Intel is also doing well with its revenue sharing hitting a four-year high, as indicated by a recent iSuppli report.

Which markets reflect the largest share of this growth? Those details are a bit sketchier. Early last year, TI did  shift a large percent of its business to low power and analog mixed signal (AMS) technology rather than digital chips – especially in the areas of medical, data storage and industrial equipment.

Xilinx continues to increase market share against traditional ASIC vendors, especially as economics favor standard products over customized ASICs in global recession markets. (Has anyone plotted Makimoto’s Wave beyond 2007?)

These happy economic tidings are in contrast to the acquisition trends that have occurred this year. The most noticeable trend in the later is the move by major chip (and EDA) venders to purchase software companies – from embedded operating systems to application development. As Ed Sperling points out in a recent blog; “Not all parts of the industry are poised for significant growth in the future …The value has shifted from just hardware or software to hardware and software.” [5 Reasons For Change]

What does this all mean? For the immediate future, the semiconductor industry is experiencing a rebound. In the long run, though, hardware alone will not be enough. Software must be part of the total long term revenue and technical picture.

Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech

Friday, December 4th, 2009

The lecture didn’t always seem well grounded in fact, but the lecturer was full of fresh ideas and thoughtful viewpoints.

Last night, my wife and I had the pleasure of listening to the famous physicist Freeman Dyson talk about the future of mankind. This was part of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by Mentor Graphics among others for the Institute of Science, Engineering and Public Policy (ISEPP).

 Freeman Dyson and Mentor's Ry Schwark
Figure: Famous physicist Freeman Dyson talks with Mentor Graphic’s Ry Schwark following an ISEEP lecture.

Dr Dyson talked about many things, but for this blog I’m only covering those that directly or indirectly related to the world of semiconductor technology. The talk started with his personal observations about the need for unilateral destruction of nuclear weapons, while the remainder of his discussion centered on the importance of bio-technology.

His comments about the origins and growth of bio-technology seemed a mix of fact and personal opinions. For example, Freeman compared the domestication of biotechnology to the analogous evolution of computers. At first, computers were big, massive and very complicated machines. He shared the infamous 1950s quote attributed to IBM’s past president – Thomas J. Watson – that there was a potential market for only 18 electronic computers in the US.

Since that time, though, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful, leading  Freeman to conclude that computers have now become domesticated. From my perspective, this seemed like a oddly agrarian choice of words, since “domesticated” usually refers to the taming of plants or animals for the service of humanity. Even a layman in technology would have said that computers have become a commodity, meaning that computers are readily affordable and available to most users. Using the phrase of “computer domestication” suggests a lack of appreciation for the countless manhours spent in R&D, architecting, testing and manufacturing required to give birth to the electronic age that so many people take for granted.

Some may argue that this is just a problem of semantics, but it highlights the growing gap of technical literacy among even the most educated and respected of our community.

Later on, Dr. Dyson observed that biotech, not nanotech, was the faster growing area of technology. He mentioned that nanotech had been around for almost 50 years. I assume he was referring to Feynman’s casual mention in the late 1950’s of building atomic level molecular machine.

In contrast, biotechnology is still in its infancy, yet has become far more common place that nanotechnology in a shorter period of time. At least for this comment, I believe that Dyson was equating biotechnology with “gene splicing,” which was first demonstrated in the early 1980s.  But this is hardly a fair comparison, as he indirectly confirms in later comments about the relative ease of gene splicing and current availability to the public via home gene-slicing kits and inexpensive DNA analyzers. He postulated that gene splicing would soon become so common that small farmers across the planet would use it to improve the yield of their crops.

Coming from the semiconductor work, I would argue that building atomic level nano machines is somewhat more involved that gene splicing appears to be. Few semiconductor visionaries predict armchair engineers will easily build nano-bots in their garages anytime soon.

There was one question that the geek in me wanted to ask Dr. Dyson, but just couldn’t. That question concerned the mention of the Dyson Sphere  in an episode of Star Trek. In the late 1950s,  Feeman theorized the possibility of creating a enormous spherical structure around a star. Lifeforms would grow around the interior of the sphere by absorbing the energy of the star in the center of the sphere.

Instead of asking this question, I suggested to him that he must have been more of a mathematician than a physicist, judging from his early work in electrodynamics and quantum mechanics. He heartily agreed, restating his early comment during the lecture that he was part of a (relatively) younger group of scientists that were more interested in tiding-up the details left over from more revolutionary thinkers like Richard Feynman, Sin-itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. The modesty of the man in his 80’s was endearing.

Freeman’s humbleness, combined with his obvious eagerness for new ideas and theories, was inspiring. I only hope that I do as well when (if) reaching his age.