Miniaturization

In the mid -1960s, IBM corporation introduced the S/360 computer. This computer is thought of as ushering in the modern computer age. IBM executives, especially Thomas Watson, Jr, literally bet the company on this one product – and won. The machine and subsequent later generation models were widely accepted and employed in both science and industry. The term computer systems originated to a large degree because of the interoperability of the IBM machines.

The 360 and its ancillary input devices such as card readers, and keyboards, output printers, card punch machines, and tape drives for storage could fill a good a good sized room.

Compare that with a current model cell phone which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller, yet have computational powers billions of times that of the IBM 360. In fact, one of today’s cell phones has millions of times the computational power of all the NASA computers used to develop and guide the Apollo Missions to the moon. And a cell phone, besides its communications functions, does so much more – cameras for still and motion photography, mapping functions from GPS signals, and an ever expanding group of applications.

This is without doubt the best example of miniaturization, ever more power in an increasingly smaller package. It certainly isn’t the only example however. About the same time as the figurative launch of the IBM 360 was the literal launch of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. This satellite, built by Bell Labs and utilized by a consortium of communications companies delivered phone and television signals across the Atlantic.

The satellite itself was about 3 feet in diameter and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The signal strength was weak so the ground station which handled the signals was huge. The antenna dish needed to track the satellite was housed in a radome the size of a 14 story office building. The elliptical orbit of the satellite meant that it was capable of only 20 minutes transmission time out of its 2.5 hour orbit of the planet.

Recently a group of “cubesats” were launched. These mini satellites are smaller than a thin paperback book. Only four were launched but the plan is to launch hundreds of these “space bees” to be placed in geostationary orbits around the world. Their purpose is to tie the Internet of Things together in one massive globally connected group of devices. Radios to refrigerators, toasters to televisions, all will interconnect via the space bees.

The medical field is seeing the application of miniature devices. A device the size of a pack of chewing gum has been designed to monitor several blood components and send the data via a Bluetooth connection. Right now device is designed for hospital use collecting data from drainage tubes employed after surgery. In the not to distant future and with continuing miniaturization, I can envision devices the size or grains of rice circulating in our bodies and sending back information on any number of biological parameters.

Miniature medical devices may go far beyond data collection and be used to correct conditions. Marrying tiny electronic devices with molecular scale creations such as antibodies will not only be able to detect but even correct numerous disease conditions. While siting on your couch or running at the beach, your phone signals you that devices within you have detected malignant liver cells. Not to worry – there’s an app for that! Problem found and corrected.

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