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Illustration by Sonya O. Wu

Cyborgs and Biochips
Science imitates nature for better computers

A Question of Quality: China's local phone makers get no respect

IIn their quest to invent machines with more reasoning agility than an electronic calculator, computer scientists are starting to borrow heavily from the natural world. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in June unveiled a silicon chip etched with electrical circuits that crudely duplicate the biological wiring of neurons and synapses in the human brain. The goal of so-called "neuromorphic engineering" projects is to build devices capable of the complex reasoning and discriminative abilities of animals rather than the simplistic "yes-no" logic of conventional computers. That could open the door to dreamed-of applications such as artificial vision systems and computers that can understand speech and recognize faces.

While some scientists are busily trying to mimic nature's wiring schematics, others seek a merger. Scientists in Asia and North America are working on "biological computers," hybrid machines that, like science-fiction cyborgs, would blend the organic and the electronic in a single machine. Indeed, some believe the information-processing and storage capabilities of organic molecules are superior to anything man is able to create out of silicon alone.

At the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, a physicist named K.P.J. Reddy is developing a biochip that would use a protein found in bacteria as a digital storage medium. The protein, called bacteriohodopsin, is potentially useful because it is photo-sensitive -- it changes properties when exposed to laser beams of differing wavelengths. Reddy, a laser specialist in the institute's aerospace engineering department, reasons that by flashing protein molecules with red and green laser light, he can switch them on and off in a biological representation of the digital ones and zeros used to store data on ordinary memory chips. Optical scanners would then be used to read the data in much the same way a laser is used to play back information burned into a CD.

Any real breakthroughs are likely to be years away. The practicality of using organic material in electronic devices has yet to be demonstrated. Reddy's protein molecules are inert and can function for more than 20 years when bound together with polymers. But to achieve the proper purity and uniformity necessary for reliable operation, biochip production might have to take place under zero-gravity conditions, Reddy reasons. The vision of chip factories orbiting in outer space seems more than a little farfetched, but there could be a worthwhile payoff: by substituting microscopic protein molecules for transistors, the physicist believes he can increase the storage capacity of desktop computers by a factor of 300 or more.

Even more ambitious biochip research programs are underway in the U.S. and Israel. The process whereby DNA synthesizes protein involves the storage and retrieval of millions of bits of data. Scientists are trying to figure out how to harness those computational properties of life's basic building block. Tapping the miraculous, little understood processing powers of even simple organisms could give science a free ride on millions of years of evolution, bringing about machines with not merely computational but cognitive capabilities as well.

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