Special Coverage Series

Network Computing

Special Coverage Series


The Future Is Now: Wi-Fi Brains, Quantum Computers and More

How far are we willing to go to push the frontiers of technology? Pretty far, new research shows.

Strap on your jetpack and tell your replicator to spin up a bottle of Dom Perignon, because it's time to celebrate. The future is here.

A recent spate of announcements demonstrate that scientists and researchers are breaking down two of the many barriers that stand between us and the techno-utopia that is our birthright: a wireless brain-computer interface, and quantum computing.

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At Brown, researchers announced this February that they created a wireless brain-computer interface that can be fully implanted in the head of a monkey. According to the paper published by the researchers, two primates had working devices in their brains for a total of 27 months combined. The devices successfully transmitted "neural data" from the primates' brains to a computer that recorded the output of the devices. Wrote the authors "Our introduction of a wireless interface capable of untethered broadband neural data collection beckons use in other clinical diagnostic applications." No kidding!

The wireless version is a breakthrough because it cuts wires that have tethered other brain-machine experiments, such as a 2011 breakthrough in which a monkey was able to manipulate a virtual arm on a screen via a wired implant.

Most of the tests have been on monkeys, though human trials have also broken some ground.

Rats are also being used to push the boundaries of biological/computer interaction. According to a news story this February, researchers transmitted neurological impulses from a rat in Brazil via the Internet to a rat in the United States.

Researchers at Duke University also worked on the project, as part of a $26 million grant from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which apparently is trying to make the world more secure by improving inter-rat communications.

Quantum Computing

Once humans are ready to implant wireless devices into their heads, they'll have some very powerful computers to connect to. For instance, earlier this month the New York Times reported that aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin will become "the first company to use quantum computing as part of its business."

Lockheed Martin, which bought an early version of a quantum computer from D-Wave systems in 2011, will use a more recent version to help it design new radar and aircraft systems.

If you've gone to the trouble of implanting a wireless interface into your brain to link you to a quantum computer, there's a good change you're probably also going to want to connect that computer to the Internet. If so, a lousy connection would be really frustrating.

That shouldn't be a problem, thanks to researchers at the University of Southampton, in England, who have redesigned the fiber-optic cable to allow it to run at nearly the speed of light.

Rather than being silica glass, the new fibers are hollow; light travels down an air channel in the middle, allowing it to travel at 99.7% the speed of light, and carry as much as 73.7 terabits per second, compared to the 40-gigabit load most fiber carries. Light travels at close to its maximum speed through air, but is slowed by 31% when passing through silica glass.

There's no word when brain-machine links to quantum computers connected superfast fiber networks will be available, but I would advise going out to find the line to stand in right now.

On the way, watch out for speeding Deloreans.



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