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THE FUTURE OF COMPUTERS
Research and development in the computer world moves simultaneously along two paths — hardware designs and software innovations. Work in each area alternately influences the other.
Many hardware systems are reaching natural limitations. RAM chips that can store 64 megabits (millions of Os or Is) are currently being tested, but the connecting circuitry is so narrow that its width must be measured in atoms. These circuits are susceptible to temperature changes and to stray radiation in the atmosphere, both of which could cause a program to crash (fail) or lose data. Newer microprocessors have so many millions of switches etched into them that the heat they generate has become a serious problem. For these and other reasons, many researchers feel that the future of computer hardware might not be in further miniaturization, but in radical new architectures, or computer designs. Almost all of today's computers process information serially, one element at a time. Massively parallel computers — consisting of hundreds of small, simple, but structurally linked microchips — break tasks into their smallest units and assign each unit to a separate processor. With many processors simultaneously working on a given task, the problem can be solved much more quickly. One design, called the Thinking Machine, uses several thousand inexpensive microprocessors and can outperform many of today's supercomputers.
Some researchers predict the development of biochips, protein molecules sandwiched between glass and metal, that would have a vastly greater storage capacity than current technology allows. Several research labs are even now studying the feasibility of biocomputers that would contain a mixture of organic and inorganic components.
Several hundred thousand computer-controlled robots currently work on industrial assembly lines in Japan and America. They consist of four major elements: sensors (to determine position or environment), effectors (tools to carry out an action), control systems (a digital computer and feedback sensors), and a power system. As computers become more efficient and artificial intelligence programs become more sophisticated, robots will be able to perform more difficult and more human-like tasks. Robots currently being built by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University have been used in scientific explorations too dangerous for humans to perform, such as descending into active volcanoes or exploring nuclear sites in which radiation leakage has occurred.
As exciting as all of the hardware developments are, they are nevertheless dependent on well-conceived and well-written software. Software controls the hardware, uses it efficiently, and forms an interface between the computer and the user. ( 2 100)
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