- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

This column mostly deals with unlikely robots, new surgical techniques and the effect of the Internet on copyright. Once a year, though, I get to stand back and look at the whole mad business of technology. Well, today is it. I say the entire technological world is nuttier than Aunt Sally's prize fruitcake. It only seems to make sense because we don't think about it carefully.
I just read an ad from Intel, the chip maker, that says an Intel Itanium II processor contains 221 million transistors. It's hard to believe that you can put 221 million of anything on something the size of a fingernail, especially if you expect all of them to work. I think there's really a little green man who lives in the Itanium II and does all those calculations with a tiny slide rule.
In a report published Dec. 2 in New Scientist magazine, I read that some Israelis have grown an artificial kidney in a mouse, and that it actually works. Do you believe that? The idea is that one day we'll be growing parts for each other like a NAPA outlet. I've been to conferences at the National Institutes of Health where scientists said they were almost growing livers and things. It's getting close.
Now, we read things such as this every day, and say, "Yeah. Livers. Growing new ones. Uh-huh." But think about it, and it's crazy. I just read another piece about a surgical team that removed a cancerous liver from a patient, carried it into another room for radiotherapy, treated it, and put it back into the patient who proceeded to live, without liver cancer.
Yes, I know how it works, and no, I don't actually think the Israelis are making it up. But some things are so strange that I'm not going to believe them merely because they happened.
This stuff is going fast, and probably faster all the time. A hundred years ago, a long lifetime, people couldn't fly. In 1969, they were traipsing around on the moon. A few years back, we had funny little crawly things buzzing and clicking around on Mars, and sending back pictures. And we think it's reasonable.
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sends a space probe to, say, Saturn, and it takes seven years or more to get there, the thing is obsolete on arrival especially given that in design you have to freeze the technology at some point, which puts it an additional couple of years behind the leading edge. I'm serious. Think where computers were seven years ago. Your kid wouldn't play computer games on the circuitry on those probes.
Yes. NASA is spending your tax money to explore the planets with primitive equipment. I figure we need a congressional investigation.
Where is all of this wild rush taking us? Beats me, but how long can we go at this constantly accelerating pace before we end up somewhere we can't imagine? For what it's worth, the biological side of technology is going to be understood eventually. Life is a lot trickier than electrons, so it probably will go slower, but it's still fast.
In 20 years, or 50, we're likely going to be able to redesign species, such as ourselves. Yeah, I know this is reprehensible sensationalism. But it seems to be going that way.
Technology comes in several flavors. There is the computer you have on your desk today. A step removed is the computer that is in engineering design for release in a year or two. Then there are technologies in the labs, things that may or may not pan out. And, finally, there is the blue-sky research that probably won't work out, but occasionally does, and then it's a different world.
All of this is out there in the journals and on the Internet. It gives a sort of conveyor-belt view of what may be coming. A fair amount of it is just plain nuts.
I still think they would be assigned to the same category as Aunt Sally's fruitcake. I'll report on it, but I don't promise to believe it.

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