Are the limits to computer technology growing or shrinking?
New software tools (left) are straddling the fence to reach greener pastures (right).
Many commentators agree that Moore's Law will likely plateau by 2020 or 2025, marking an end to the theory of a relentless doubling of microchip power every 18 months. So what comes next? Instead of looking inside a laboratory for answers, researchers may find answers in the natural world around us, says Eric Drexler, an author and nanotechnology proponent.
Drexler spoke at COFES, a small trade show whose organizers aim to spark discussions, as opposed to lectures. So COFES (www.cofes.org), the congress on the future of engineering software, invites only insiders, not CAD users or tradeshow booth hawkers. But in its third year, the little show has tended to focus on the past, causing some wags to nickname it COHES (congress on the HISTORY of engineering software). It rose above that label this year, with discussions of nanotechnology and business models for launching new technology.
Exponential growth in the high-technology industry tends to happen in the areas of precision, complexity, and miniaturization, noted Drexler in his May 3 keynote address. That means the growth curve is not limited by materials shortages, as with industrial and factory growth, but merely by the laws of physics.
Drexler has been preaching this prediction for 20 years now, since the publication of his book on the dawning of nanotechnology, Engines of Creation. Having studied the industry for so long, can he predict its future direction? Drexler looks to nature for hints.
"We ship laptops with orders of magnitude more memory than they're designed with," he says. "It's cheap, non-volatile, and includes terabytes of memory. It's the DNA of bacteria. Nature is trying to tell us something: molecular machine systems exist."
And those systems can be mechanical as well as electrical, working their way along DNA chains to replicate amino acid chains, causing microscopic animals to "swim" with flagella, or pulling and stretching our muscles as we flex them.
The key to doing more is advancing our fabrication technology, allowing us to build with "atomic precision," he says. In that new wave of "molecular manufacturing," designers will carefully set the initial conditions, then let chemistry do what comes naturally. For more details, check out Drexler's Foresight Institute (Palo Alto, CA, www.foresight.org).
OK, assume we create such a revolutionary new technology. Who's going to buy it?
Launching a new technology will always depend on demand, and that relies on the technology's competitive advantage gap over others, and how long this advantage will last. Only a big enough competitive gap and competitive period will jump the "chasm" between a few visionary early-adopters and the general marketplace of conservative skeptics, says Michael Tanner, managing director of the Chasm Group (San Mateo, CA, www.chasmgroup.com).
So what does this mean for the future of CAD? Tanner ranked various design technologies from cutting-edge to generic. The newest technologies include: collaboration, web services, knowledge management, virtual reality, and design for manufacturability.
CAD technologies that have recently crossed the chasm into a broader market include: e-learning, redlining, supply chain management, application servers, solid modeling, CRM (customer relationship management), FEA (finite element analysis), and ERP (enterprise resource planning). And finally, technologies used even by conservative adopters include only 2D CAD, 3D CAD, and EDA (electronic design automation) linting.
From a user's point of view, the danger in waiting to adopt a mature technology is that you can accumulate a collection of point-solutions which don't interoperate with each other. Yet the CAD marketplace looks lopsided, since most technologies are very young, while most users have bought only one or two mature tools.
That condition implies that the CAD industry is poised to make a big leap, as reluctant users finally apply cutting-edge technologies. And that's a future worth talking about.