By Dave Reiss                      Final Paper 12/10/01                  Digital Economy, Fall 2001


As we reach the technically feasible limits of the current electronic technology of the desktop computer, a new breed of biologically based bacterial

nano-computers of the future may have the capacity to impact and alter desktop computing forever, through miniaturization that could bring huge increases of computing capacity, power, storage and speed.  The impact of nano-technology production could not only alter how we manufacture computer components, but might spread to other forms of manufacturing as well.

In this article we will examine the current developments of bio-computing, followed by the key scientific principles and applications of molecular technology that makes this potential revolution in computing power possible.  Finally we will look at how this cutting edge technology might be adopted in the future, and who would be most likely to make use of bio-computers.


The Present Day Computer.

Today’s state-of-the-art personal computers are based on the refined technology surrounding the development of the silicon computer chip.  This power was attained by leaps in miniaturization, squeezing more and more circuits onto a single chip. Now a single printed circuit on the surface of a chip is down to 0.1 micron, about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.[1]

Today the computing capability of the computer chip has been embraced by consumers and industry alike in the clock speed of the PC Chip, measured in the frequency of hertz. A single hertz (Hz) is one completed cycle per second.  Each cycle represents a single instruction, which may be as simple as the addition of two numbers, or one of millions of instructions created by a computer’s software.  60Hz would represent 60 cycles or instructions per second.  Following this model, a megahertz is a million cycles or computations per second, and a gigahertz represents one billion cycles or computations per second.  Today the state-of-the-art Pentium 4 based PC chip touts speeds up to 2000mhz.


The Bio-Chip Computer of Tomorrow.

Enter the field of molecular computing, and the ability to pack billions more circuits onto a microchip than ever thought possible.  Science news writer Tim McDonald asserts that "molecules are only a few nanometers in size, and it is possible to make chips containing billions, or even trillions, of switches and components."[2]  From this statement it would seem logical to assume that this new molecular technology has the possibility to increase the capacity of a single chip by factors measured in the millions.  And if this possibility of such huge increases of a computer microchip exists, then what many would call a super computer becomes achievable.

The term supercomputer is widely used but even more widely misunderstood.  In order to define what a supercomputer is, first we must leave behind the old style of measuring computing speed and power.  We will speak no more of the CPU’s chip speed.  It is irrelevant to the new computing models we are going to explore.

Let’s start fresh with a look at the most refined and efficient model of a biological supercomputer that exists today: the human brain.  The human brain and our accompanying sensory biology, such as eyesight, represent a level of power and sophistication that makes even our best PCs look downright pokey.  With all this fuss over desktop multimedia, here is a fact worth remembering--you are your most powerful computing asset.

Fortunately there is a body of knowledge based on the 30-year quest for robotic vision, and these statistics are revealing.  Embracing a measurement in the MIPS (million instructions per second), it is thought that PC computing equivalent of human sight requires 100 million MIPS.  Experimental computers achieved a few million MIPS in 1998.  These were made up of thousands of PC Chips and cost in the tens of millions of dollars. [3]   If we are ever to enter the realm of the super-computer, we will need to look beyond our current model of an electronically based silicon chip computer.  Enter bio-chip based computing, which many scientists in a variety of disciplines believe holds the key to a new era of computers, capable of tremendous processing power and speed.

The race to engineer a new breed of machines and computers at the molecular level is well under way.  The list of organizations that are actively engaged in nanotechnology research and development, as well as practical applications is impressive, including industry giants Genex, U.S. Naval Research Labs, IBM, NEC, Hitachi, and Toshiba to name a few.

It is worth noting that even with this impressive collection of corporate R&D muscle, most scientific predictions of what types of nano-technical machines are possible are ambiguous.  It is clear that computing devices are only one of many different products that are feasible.  Some examples of applications for microscopic machines range from microscopic bacterial syringes – born from current bio-technology – that kill cancer cells, to pocket DNA testers, to airplane wings made of "smart skin" material that allows the micro-surface to act as finely tuned flaps allowing for safer and more efficient flight.  Other areas include data storage, inertial navigation, weapons, and a dizzying array of nano pumps, and valves. [4]

In principal these devices will share many familiar engineering concepts used today.  "Just as ordinary tools can build ordinary machines from parts, so too can molecular tools bond molecules together to make tiny gears, motors, levers, and casings, and assemble them together to make complex machines.”[5]


What About The Bio-chip computer?

Based on the underlying principal of digital computing based on the binary code of 0's and 1's, we start to see how a single molecule capable of being in a state of 0 or 1, or On or Off, makes the possibility of molecular computing achievable, at least in theory.  And since it has been proven that molecular switches can exist in several states at once, both on and off, the potential computing power grows exponentially.  Combine this increased computing power with emerging miniaturized data storage technology that raises the bar of fast access to media up to terabyte capacity, and we have the makings of what we would now consider a supercomputer in a device the size of a current day PDA or smaller.


Biology and Electronics Merge.

The ability to engineer and build a bio-computer lies first and foremost in the ability to merge the biological parts with the electronics into hybrid systems. Electronic computers of today simply act as routers for electrons over the .01 micron sized circuits of today's silicon chip.  A biological PC chip, however, may allow for the same sized circuit to handle the equivalent of one thousand circuits through the development of Microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS.  MEMS is the practice of combining miniaturized mechanical and electronic components.

It is widely accepted that any successful bio-chip based computer can only be built by combining the bio-chip with the latest electronic technologies, including those for display, sound, input, and connectivity.  Through a wide variety of techniques currently being researched and developed, successful MEMS technology will be key to building hybrid systems containing technology based in both organically grown molecules and traditionally manufactured electronics. [6]


Self-Assembling Materials.

Manufacturing on the molecular level on a scale that would be useful is made possible by the ability for some molecules to "self-assemble." This ability to reproduce organically is noteworthy in many ways.  Inspired by nature, this model is nothing new. But the ability to design nanotechnology based on organic molecules that build themselves once started is very new.  Already successfully proving this concept are new liposomes that contain drugs for treatments of an array of diseases.  There are many other areas where self-assembly has been proven to work.  Some big wins include the successful design and growth of crystals starting off with a self assembling monolayer (SAM), as well as a very relevant piece to the bio-computing puzzle, Buckytubes, which are tiny self assembling graphite tubes that act as the smallest electrical wire ever known.[7]


The Universal Key.

What propels the entire field of biological nano-technology is the ability to manipulate organic matter.  For the most part, any one person or group cannot own the fundamental principals that would allow for such extraordinary developments.  "The toolbox of biochemistry, the parts list -- the "kernel," to stretch the software analogy -- is shared by all organisms on the planet.”[8]

This non-ownership factor has enormous importance.  Once any biological technology is developed, anyone can take it and tweak, much like open source code for software.  This model has been shown to foster innovation in the software industry, which leads us to believe it can be only good for the developing nano-machines based in biological technology. 

There is the possibility of a "democratization" regarding the ability to design and manufacture as the technology matures.  Award-winning science writer Robert Carlson believes that "these critical technologies will first move from academic labs to large biotechnology companies to small business, and eventually to the home garage and kitchen."[9]  Fantastic as that may seem, it is now a fact that, for instance, that many lab tests that in the past required a doctoral degree and tremendous scientific resources now come in color coded kits any undergraduate can use successfully.


All This And Cheaper Too?

Considering a computer chip manufacturing plant costs upward of one billion dollars, the potential of biological computer chip manufacturing to be more efficient from an economic view is an important factor.  The combination of cheaper and faster always gets attention, and bio-computing will be no different in that respect.  But there is another aspect of this technology that could effect us in ways so profound it becomes hard to imagine.

We all know that the current model of industrialization is a wasteful one. Aside from the obvious solutions of recycling, alternative power, and other "green" sciences, biological manufacturing has a huge advantage, mainly that "renewable, biological manufacturing will take place anywhere someone wants to set up a vat or plant a seed."[10]  Once the scientific design of any given bio-pc component is refined, it is simply grown.  The drain on our planet resources and the wasteful pollution resulting from current manufacturing methods are eliminated in the process.


What could we do with a Bio-Chip computer?

In order to see just what the future implications of this new and exciting technology might realistically bring, let’s speculate, for example, what capabilities a supercomputer the size of a watch might have.  I offer this scenario; a handheld or wearable computer device capable of generating a photo-realistic 3D virtual computing environment, visually experienced by wearing glasses that project images onto the surface of the each lens.  Input is provided by speaking into a tiny microphone coupled with advanced speech recognition, and sound output by a miniature ear-piece.

Connectivity would be achieved by high speed wireless network access to the Internet, and your colleagues, allowing for real-time interaction and sharing of data.  Then consider the exciting prospect of recording every moment and interaction each and every day of our lives, thus allowing each of us to create a virtual life history stored in digital media.  Add a virtual staff of intelligent software agents able to perform research, engineering -- anything a room full of highly educated and expensive employees would normally do -- and we start to see the potential of this new technology.


The Bio-Chip Revolution…Will It Come?

As great as a bio-chip super computer sounds, and to many, including myself, the prospects of such huge advances in computing power and environments are truly revolutionary, in my opinion precious few of us will ever get to use one in our lifetime.  Yes, it is possible, even probable, given the advances discussed in this article, that in the next twenty years some form of hybrid bio-chip super computer will be developed.  Unfortunately there are many reasons why most of us will never even see, much less use, such an incredible device.

The silicon chip based computer provides more than enough computing power than most of the population will ever need.  Unless some “killer” application comes along that requires a quantum leap in computational power, and is widely adopted, our Pentium 4 or 5 or 10 chip will suffice quite well, thank you very much.  Until there is a fundamental shift in the very nature of computing, most of the population running Windows 200X on their desktop will be oblivious to the possibilities a bio-chip computer could offer.

The precious few of us who actually need the upwards of 100 million MIPS computing punch are fooling around in such focused areas as robotics and artificial intelligence -- highly specialized fields that only a select few actually work in.  The military might be an early adopter, but we’d never know about it unless we wore a star or two on our collar.


More With Less.

In the race to make our computer technology more efficient, many clever software developers learned to do more with less.  The Hubble telescope received a highly touted PC upgrade in the waning days of 1999.  It consisted of a 1970’s era Intel 486 chip.  I believe that the majority of consumers computing needs are easily handled by the computers of today.  Until something, or someone for that matter, comes along that makes us want, or better yet, feel we must have a bio-chip supercomputer, most of us will never see one. 




1.   Drexler, K Eric.  Engines of Creation  1990


2.   Patterson, David A. “Microprocessors in 2020” Scientific American

(September 1995)


3.       Whitesides, George, M. “Self-Assembling Machines” Scientific American (September 1995)


4.      Gabriel, Kaigham, J. “Engineering Microscopic Machines”

Scientific   American (September 1995)


5.      Carlson, Robert. “Biological Technology in 2050",

      The Economist/Shell World in 2050 Essay Competition (2001)


6.       Dertouzos, Michael, L. “The Future of Computing” Scientific American (August 1999)


7.   Moravec, Hans. “ When will computer hardware match the human brain?”

      Journal of Evolution and Technology (1998, Vol. 1)


8.      McDonald, Tim. “Future Computing:Faster than Silicon” NewsFactor 

      Network. (

[1] McDonald, Tim. “Future Computing:Faster than Silicon” NewsFactor Network. May 3, 2001 (htttp://


[2] McDonald, Tim. “Future Computing:Faster than Silicon” NewsFactor Network.

May 3, 2001 (htttp://



[3] Moravec, Hans. “ When will computer hardware match the human brain? Journal of Evolution and Technology (1998, Vol. 1)


[4] Gabriel, Kaigham, J. “Engineering Microscopic Machines” Scientific American (September 1995)


[5] Drexler, K Eric.  Engines of Creation  1990

[6] Gabriel, Kaigham, J. “Engineering Microscopic Machines” Scientific American (September 1995)


[7] Whitesides, George, M. “Self-Assembling Machines” Scientific American (September 1995)

8 Carlson, Robert. “Biological Technology in 2050",   The Economist/Shell World in 2050 Essay Competition (2001)


[9] Carlson, Robert. “Biological Technology in 2050",   The Economist/Shell World in 2050 Essay Competition (2001)


[10] Carlson, Robert. “Biological Technology in 2050", The Economist/Shell World in 2050 Essay Competition (2001)