Five Live Ones

Miniature machines that course through your body, searching out cancer cells and killing them. Tiny devices that eat oil spills or neutralise environmental poisons like dioxin. The creation of strong, lightweight materials to replace metals like steel. Building molecule-size computers. These are some of the promises of nanotechnology.

To the extent that they are aware of it, most people think of nanotechnology as the science of building extremely small machines. In fact, the technology is more far-reaching than that. It essentially amounts to manufacturing on the molecular level: the ability to fabricate materials and devices while each atom is in a very specific location. There are some immediate uses for the technology. The most obvious involves the use of what are called nanotubes - cylindrical molecules that can be combined to create new materials. Lightweight fabrications made of nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel and can withstand temperatures up to 6500 degrees Fahrenheit. Christine Peterson, president of Foresight Institute, a non-profit California-based nanotechnology think tank, says that these materials will be used in building everything from automobiles to office buildings. "Any company involved in manufacturing any kind of physical objects needs to know about this technology," Peterson says. The potential benefits of nanotechnology are so extreme - and yet so gauzy - that when some people speak of them, an almost mystical tone creeps into their voice. But the gap between the technology's promise and its present-day reality is likewise extreme. The irony is that while seers envision molecule-size factories or miniature machines eating cancer, what's here today is far more mundane. The Illinois-based nanotechnology company Nanocor supplies nanosize clay minerals to the plastics industry, while Massachusetts-based Hyperion Catalysis International, a carbon nanofibre manufacturer, produces conductive carbon fibrils technology used by GE Plastics to make automobile parts. Not groundbreaking stuff, but it's a start.

"In any field, you need to start with materials as a foundation, so it makes sense this would be the first use," says Scott Mize, a senior associate at Foresight Institute. In the next few years, Mize says, nanotechnology will reach the IT industry, leading to the creation of ever-smaller memory devices and processors. Beyond that, it will find widespread use in biotechnology, health care and pharmaceuticals. Further in the future, Peterson sees a huge effect on manufacturing. "Picture a production line where every atom is under control, a tiny assembly line where the objects you're making aren't car parts but molecules . . . And if you have control of every atom at all times, you don't need to dump anything or create any kind of pollution - you recycle, reuse or package it all into environmentally benign forms," Peterson remarks. Glover Ferguson, chief scientist for Accenture (US), says that nanotechnology could feasibly be combined with peer-to-peer and wireless networking. Ferguson predicts the development of smart nanodust consisting of miniature programmable sensors that would be able to communicate wirelessly with their peers. The applications are boundless. Imagine, for example, sprinkling the dust in an area where you needed security coverage. The dust particles would behave as security sensors.

Make way for an invisible infrastructure of infinitesimally small, flexibly programmable objects.

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Of the five technologies examined here, wireless gets the hottest play these days. Arguably, it will change business more than anything else since the advent of the Internet. It's more a question of when than if. For now, most wireless use is confined to mobile phone calling. But wireless Internet connections will become ubiquitous; most employees will access the Internet over cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and wireless laptops.

Earliest adoption will be among sales forces, whose members will thereby enjoy immediate, real-time access to inventory records, price lists, and order and customer account status, as well as the ability to book a sale almost instantaneously. For anyone working away from the office, instant-on e-mail will ensure immediate corporate communication. In fact, this level of utility already exists on a limited scale: in the US, Blackberry wireless PDAs integrate directly with Microsoft Exchange, so companies using Microsoft Outlook and Exchange for e-mail can offer employees wireless access to e-mail. Within the next several years, third generation (3G) wireless services will roll out, enabling high-bandwidth Internet access spiced up with such multimedia capabilities as streaming video. From that point on, wireless applications and capabilities will explode. So, don't sell your stock in that sluggish wireless infrastructure venture just yet. Accenture's Ferguson believes that with pervasive wireless connectivity, "the environment we live in and do business in [becomes] always aware . . . In business, that means you get a constant feedback loop", which opens new ways of reaching - and being reached by - customers.

One major way that wireless is used today is allowing mobile workers access to corporate information and their own personal information wherever they are - and not merely giving them access, but allowing them to tap directly into enterprisewide applications for services such as order taking and inventory checking.

Steve McDonald, a former consultant with Crescendo Technologies Group, an IT consultancy based in Georgia, has helped several corporations deploy wireless technologies and reap some immediate benefits. The first is simple to understand: lower cost. A typical salesperson, McDonald notes, lugs around a pricey ($6000 or higher) laptop with only two or three enterprise-level applications loaded onto it. Replace that laptop with a $1000 to $1200 wireless PDA, equip it with built-in wireless enterprise applications that give access to mainframe data and other corporate resources, and you save $5000 per person. Besides the benefit of giving salespeople access to real-time capabilities, McDonald says, "you don't need to provide as much support [for the PDAs] as for laptops". McDonald is pitching a widespread wireless rollout for a beverage distributor in the Atlanta area. If the project goes through, salespeople will be equipped with wireless devices tied into the company's IBM AS/400 system. Currently, the sales force has no way to get real-time information remotely or enter orders directly - resulting in lost sales and a not-so-happy sales team.

Through the example of pioneering projects like these, wireless will eventually change the way businesses operate. But the current slowdown - combined with delays in dividing up the available public electromagnetic spectrum required to make 3G wireless services a reality - means that many of the most advanced wireless features will have to wait for a while.

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Imagine having many times the power of the world's largest supercomputer sitting on your desktop. Or suppose you could freely sell your business's excess processing power on the open market. That's the potential of distributed computing, a cousin of peer-to-peer networking, for which it is sometimes mistaken. But in fact, the two are quite different. In distributed computing, the processing power of thousands of PCs is in essence aggregated to create a supercomputer. A centralised server subdivides a large computing task into smaller bits. It then assigns those bits to thousands of desktop computers, each of which does its part and returns the result to the server. The server then aggregates the results and assigns more microtasks. This kind of computing is best suited to large tasks. For example, the first widespread use of it is in the SETI@home project, in which sophisticated radar arrays search the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence represented as an intelligent pattern of radio waves lurking in normal background radiation. As part of the project, thousands of volunteers have downloaded the SETI@home screen saver, which (when computers are sitting idle) gets data from the SETI@home project, does a bit of number crunching and sends the data back to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley for analysis. In another screen-saver-based distributed application, a group of sponsors (Intel, Oxford University, the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the distributed computing company United Devices) is making use of spare PC processing power to help in leukaemia research (members.ud.com/vypc/cancer).

What do the search for aliens and a cure for cancer have to do with your business? According to Jim Madsen, former chief executive officer of the San Diego-based distributed computing company Entropia, it all boils down to budget. "With distributed computing, you have access to a worldwide computing grid in the same way that people today have access to an electricity grid without being limited by the energy they can generate themselves . . . The potential is in being able to access, at low cost, a computing grid with a billion nodes on it," Madsen says.

The logical early adopters of this high-power and low-cost alternative will be in industries that thrive on heavy-duty computational power: pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and financial services. Entropia (www.entropia.com) sells enterprise software that endows a corporate network with distributed-computing capabilities. Alternatively, the company "rents" access to its Internet grid of distributed resources to smaller customers for whom a pay-as-you-go solution makes better economic sense than owning the capability in-house. In the future, enterprise-level customers could theoretically sell their unused cycles back to vendors like Entropia so that they can be added to the Internet grid and used in the distributed-computing rental market. SolidSpeed Networks, in Michigan, is among the relatively small number of companies that have so far harnessed the power of distributed computing. SolidSpeed specialises in content delivery over the Internet. To do this as quickly and efficiently as possible, it caches (temporarily deposits) content files on servers throughout the Internet so that they can travel to users faster over a much shorter distance.

But SolidSpeed had a problem, according to Dean Massab, the company's vice president of sales, marketing and business development: it had no accurate way to gauge the effectiveness of the caching system. So the company created a piece of software, called Probester, designed to run on a distributed computing network - in this case, Entropia's. The software uses the idle cycles of the thousands of computers in Entropia's network, each of which downloads a data object from a Web site and calculates how long the download takes. The computers report the results back to SolidSpeed's Probester server, which rolls up the results and assesses caching performance. "There's no way to do this without distributed computing," Massab notes. Well, at least not without investing in a supercomputer. And while there's nothing wrong with supercomputers, few organisations without a constant need for such power can cost-justify owning one.

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For a device to hop on to the Internet, it generally needs some kind of processing intelligence nearby - a PC, a laptop, a Palm, a mobile phone. But that's changing. Technology companies are concocting low-cost methods of getting on the Internet - in essence, building the basic communications protocols of the Internet directly onto low-cost semiconductors. That means that just about anything - from a coffeemaker to environmental monitoring devices to UPC codes - can have the embedded ability to send and receive data over the Net. Now, maybe you don't really care whether you can check your home coffeemaker from work to see whether it's brewing up a proper latte. But while Internet-connected home appliances won't become big business for several more years, there are other more immediate business implications. Combined with wireless technology, Net-ready chips can create Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags - small, inexpensive tags that can live on virtually any manufactured product. Accenture's Ferguson says this will lead to "intelligent inventory" - objects that can wirelessly broadcast vital information about themselves to special scanners. So, rather than hire people to do warehouse inventory, one would need only to do a quick scan to get mistake-free results. Each tag would have comprehensive information about the object, including the date and place it was manufactured.

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