Tiny tiny things

Posted: 01.25.17

Our lives depend on the itsy bitsy

As the world of semiconductors has shrunk to nano and microscopic our lives have gotten better. Whereas the steam and gasoline engines gave us a better standard of living by scaling up in size, the third industrial revolution benefits us by getting smaller. So small we can’t see it but feel its benefits, soon to be coursing through organs and veins, our eyes and brains. 

As I like to point out, the technology works when its invisible. Your two proudest posessions, your automobile and your smart phone work flawlessly and very few people, even most of the technorati don’t fully understand the internal workings of these essential tools, status symbols, and entertainment devices. And that’s the good news. We don’t really understand how our bodies work, either and for the most part we only notice our bodies and our wondrous machines when they don’t work. 

And it’s only going to get better. Better at such a rate some of us will not be able to absorb it and go into a Ludditelike counter-reaction and try to thwart the inevitable march of technology with superstition and violence. But for those who embrace it, life is going to be so rich, so exciting, enlightening, and entertaining we will consider plastic surgery to get the perpetual smile off our faces.

 It’s not just semiconductors, although semiconductor manufacturing techniques have been the catalyst for most of the miniaturization. Nano-scale transistors, smaller than a virus, approaching the size of atoms, and be packed together by the billions, approaching the population of the earth, and fit in a package the size of a U.S. silver dollar. All those transistors can be hooked up to make the most powerful computers imagined, and run on thin batteries in our pockets, all day long. 

But the transistors are not alone, and couldn’t work their magic if they were. They, and we, rely on the tiny electro-mechanical devices, smaller than a grain of rice that sense our movements, the earth’s magnetic poles, the local temperature and atmosphere’s pressure, the photons immersing us with energy transfer elements that convert them to electrons, and the nano-scale micromachined capacitors that can detect sound waves surrounding us. Only neutrinos, and gravity waves are being ignored—today. After the wondrously tiny processors manipulate the data from the nano-sensors, it’s sent places. Through equally miniscule radios to the world at large, to localized devices stuck in our ears, to internal storage devices, and most importantly to displays.  

Some of the displays are in the device, others are in devices near us, and still others are in things mounted on our heads; glasses, helmets, and one day, contact lens. As amazing as it is to contemplate a panel the size of small note book containing 8.3 million light emitting crystals, it’s even more astounding to think about 2 million such crystals occupying a space smaller than the diameter of pencil, embedded in our glasses. 

The tiny radios can receive as well as transmit, and provide us with geo-spatial reference data from dozens of orbiting satellites, nearby radio towers and local nodes in shops or other people. All of that to help us know where we are, exactly, almost any place on the earth. Not just where we are, but where we are looking, the tilt of our head, and the velocity, if any, of our movement. 

With that precision positioning information, we can receive, and send critical information about our immediate environment. We can receive information about the geography, history, construction above and below the ground, and the proximity of others. Likewise, we can provide that same level of information about what we are seeing and experiencing, making us the archivers of life, and dispelling once and for all misrepresentation of the facts. And if truth and information are not the greatest gifts our tiny technology can give us, I’m at a loss to imagine what else it might be other than pseudo physical sensations from haptic devices. Our teeny tiny technology has augmented our lives on our bodies, the next phase will be to augment it inside our bodies. Already being experimented with for the blind and partially blind, for insulin delivery, and seizure maintenance. 

And the teeny tiny devise not only augment us, they augment the things around us, our lights, TVs, automobiles, and even our refrigerators. Like the ants and mites that clean up after us, our tiny things make our lives richer than could be imagined just a half decade ago. Small is wonderful.