Part of the fun of this job is being able to visit labs and see things that few others get to see. The IBM Almaden Lab in San Jose, Calif., is particularly fun because the entrance that the GPS system takes you to looks like it was left over from the Cold War. It is hidden in a residential area, and you have to drive a long way up a road with weaponized attack squirrels that run out and appear to attack any unauthorized cars. (However, they appear to need work because they attacked authorized cars equally badly. I'm guessing it was actually mating season, but this seemed more fun.) You pass ancient farm structures and half expect to see half-buried flying saucers or mysterious ancient temples as you approach a building designed to blend into the landscape. It is very well concealed.
Coming back out, you are on an even more secret street that winds through the hills and ends up relatively close to a Starbucks. (You've got to have the right priorities.) However, this isn't about Starbucks, it is about IBM's recent Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) advancement in storage, which has broader implications for energy and even medicine. Some speculate that this technology, should it be successful, could create a rebirth for the Silicon Valley and a new name: Atomic Valley. I'm thinking we might want to pick Quantum Valley or Nano Valley instead, though, because "Atomic Valley" sounds like someplace something really bad happened.
Let's talk about that.
The Importance of R&D
IBM Labs remains one of the few fully funded labs. HP's funding was cut and historic Bell Labs is largely gone altogether, limiting not only those companies' ability to operate strategically, but the nation's ability to maintain its strategic technology leadership. This is largely the result of a massive financial-analyst-driven focus on near-term results at the expense of long-term projects and executive managers who are far removed from founders and compensated on those short-term results.
IBM's Almaden Lab has projects to purify water, create batteries based on air that can take a car 500 miles and magnetic switches that assure Moore's Law never ends, and invent ever-more-advanced storage technology.
IBM's Nano-Scale Breakthrough and Impact
At the core of this announcement is the ability to not only see molecular structures, but measure and even create them. Part of the problem has been that these structures change in nanoseconds. If you were to slow down an event that took a nanosecond until it lasted a second, that's equivalent to slowing a one-second event to take more than 30 years.
But IBM has demonstrated that this technology can be used for storage that would be massively more dense then current technologies. Think terabyte capacities on smartphones as an idea of the massive storage density that could be achieved-and we might be significantly underestimating this potential capacity. Because this would allow both the close proximity of data and highly randomized rapid data retrieval, this may be one of the few, if not only, storage mechanisms that quantum computers will require.
Potentially nearer term, this technology also can be used to dramatically increase the effectiveness of solar panels, offering a much bigger impact on the world's addiction to oil. By redesigning them at a nano level, they could be vastly more efficient and dramatically lower in cost-per-watt than current technology.
Wrapping Up: Implications
When you look inside IBM's lab, you see the potential for massive and beneficial world change. This technology, though, is likely still 10 to 15 years from becoming products you can buy. Its work in storage would enable quantum computing, which is believed to be capable of solving problems that range from unbreakable encryption to cost-effective space travel. IBM's work on batteries and solar cells could drastically reduce oil consumption and eliminate sources of pollution.
Being ex-IBM myself, these advancements make me proud of my old organization. I hope it serves as an example to others of the need to depend on government less and ourselves more if we really want to leave a better world for our children. I applaud IBM for making a real difference.