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Bringing computers and life closer together

LA Times

10th Jan 2000

Scientists at UCLA and Hewlett-Packard pushed deeper into the frontier of technology with an advance last year in molecular logic gates, one of the most exotic fields of computing.

The scientists, led at UCLA by professor James Heath, used a class of organic chemicals to construct the basic building blocks of a computer - a breakthrough that eventually could lead to computing devices billions of times faster than today's most advanced machines.

The work at UCLA is part of a broad movement that has existed since the earliest days of computing: trying to bring aspects of life and machinery closer together.

The two entities often seem completely at odds with each other. Machines are brutishly fast and precise, while life is subtle and constantly changing. Scientists are trying to use the most powerful lessons from both worlds to create devices -- or humans -- that are faster and better.

While the workday world of technology is consumed with such issues as packing more transistors onto silicon chips or increasing the speed of microprocessors, the research world has already pushed into the rarefied realm of molecular computers, artificial life and cyborg-like implants for humans.

Heath's work in molecular logic gates was one of the key breakthroughs by Southern California research laboratories in 1999.

Heath sandwiched a thin film of organic chemicals known as rotaxanes between a grid of etched wires. His group was able to configure the molecules to perform basic logic functions.

The researchers hope to string groups of logic gates together to create logic circuits, which would open the way to full molecular computers. They are also working on circuits that can be reconfigured many times, a primary ability of silicon memory chips.

"We're knocking on the door on both those things," said Pat Collier, a researcher in Heath's group.

Dozens of projects are under way at Southern California's universities that revolve in some way around this convergence of life and machines. At Caltech, professor Chris Adami has been working in a field known as artificial life -- the embedding of human attributes such as judgment, change and adaptability into computer programs.

A group of scientists at the University of California at San Diego successfully integrated an artificial electronic neuron with a group of 14 neurons in a California spiny lobster.

The artificial neuron was accepted by the real ones, and its signaling rhythm fell into place with the others.

One of the most difficult projects in the convergence of humans and machines is trying to embed devices within the human body.

The most successful device so far has been the cochlear implant, which can allow certain groups of the deaf to hear.

At the University of Southern California, biomedical engineering professor Gerald Loeb has been working on tiny injectable implants, the size of a grain of rice. These implants can stimulate muscles for those who have been paralyzed.

The implants are powered by radio signals, which can command the implant to release a burst of electricity. Clinical trials of Loeb's implants, which he calls, "bions," began in Canada in November.

For next year, Loeb said his group is working on similarly sized sensors that can detect muscle movements.

With both actuators and sensors, Loeb said, it may be only a few more years before paralyzed hands can perform simple functions, such as grasping a cup.

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