IBM Blurs the Line Between Reality and Sci-Fi With DNA Chips

Moore's Law is outpacing technology capable of manufacturing even smaller chips and is rapidly approaching the theoretical maximum where it will no longer be possible to expand processing power least not using traditional chip manufacturing techniques. IBM is blurring the boundary between reality and science fiction and attempting to transcend current manufacturing methods by creating self-assembling chips on a skeleton of DNA.

Roughly paraphrased, Moore's Law says that the number of transistors that are squeezed into a single chip, or the overall processing power of a CPU, grow exponentially to effectively double every 2 years. That has been essentially true for over 50 years since the first integrated circuit was developed in 1958. The combination of Moore's Law and the desire to make electronic devices smaller and smaller is pushing the limits of what chip manufacturers can build. Currently, 22 nanometer technology is the smallest that can be manufactured.

Rather than trying to build even smaller traditional manufacturing techniques and pushing beyond the 22 nanometer limit, IBM engineers borrowed a trick from a California Institute of Technology scientist who determined that DNA can be used to create self-assembling structures. A DNA solution is applied to a circuit template, then millions of nanotubes or nanoparticles are applied. The inherent ability of the DNA to incorporate large amounts of information and form complex structures leads to the nanotechnology integrating with the DNA resulting in an integrated circuit.

The technique has been successfully demonstrated and it shows promise, but it is far too early to tell whether Moore's Law has just reached the end of the line, whether some other solution will emerge to breathe new life into Moore's Law, or if IBM's Borg-like process will succeed in assimilating nanotechnology into functional processors. We're still a few years from seeing this technique developed into anything that could practically be applied to everyday chip manufacturing.

It sounds like something from a William Gibson novel. It invokes images of The Matrix, or SkyNET. If our computers and electronic devices are developed using DNA as the core structure it seems to cross the line between technology and organism and open a whole new understanding of what it means for your PC to get a virus- is your PC compromised by a biological or a digital virus?

The reality of what IBM has accomplished isn't as ominous as all of that. In fact, the accomplishment is quite impressive. It falls under the realm of things that I am glad there are brilliant, imaginative, innovative minds to conjure up because in a million years I don't think it would occur to me to solve chip manufacturing limits by merging living DNA into the process. You have to admit though- aside from potentially solving chip manufacturing limitations and allowing for the continued evolution of processing power, IBM's solution appears to create a whole new realm of tinfoil hat paranoia and provide ample fodder for budding science fiction authors.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at

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