Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Critical Difference between Atoms and Bits

Ever since the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, I have become more interested in inherent incompatibilities between the world of bits and the world of atoms.  Reading Daniel Terdiman's Geek Gestalt column for CNET News this morning has helped me to flesh out an interesting aspect of those incompatibilities.  This is slightly ironic to the extent that Terdiman's "Geek world," as well as the world of IBM, whose research he was reporting, are so firmly ensconced in the world of bits.  Nevertheless, the world of bits is not going to be properly served by nanotechnology until we have a better idea of what is happening at that nano level;  and that entails a better understanding of what atoms are and how they behave.
Indeed, without going into details that I am not particularly equipped to discuss, I would argue that the "breakthrough" results at IBM's Almaden Research Center support a firm case for the existential argument that "what atoms are" can only be established through our knowledge of how they behave.  It is this perspective that I feel is important when we risk running into any reckless attempts to talk about bits and atoms.  The significance lies in the extent to which, from any abstract point of view, a bit is always static.  This sounds a little like an insight into the obvious.  A bit is recognized by its two-state nature.  All that matters is that it is in one of two opposing states, and anything else is irrelevant to the abstraction and thus to the nature of the bit itself.  Compare this, however, with Terdiman's attempt to summarize the key implication of IBM's research:
According to Sebastian Loth, the post-doctoral researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center here who was the lead writer on the paper, the team's breakthrough is tantamount to advancing the state of imaging of atoms from the status quo being a still camera--where most of the physics was already over by the time any image was captured--to a new era of movie camera-like capabilities where the imagery is captured in near-real time.
This amounts to asserting that any imaging of atoms cannot be state-based;  it can only be process-based.  In my own favorite terminology, the ontology of bits may be developed around the linguistic expressiveness of nouns and noun phrases;  but the ontology of atoms requires the expressiveness of verbs.

On at least one occasion I have heard Nicholas Negroponte was poetic over a future in which the world of atoms will be reduced to the world of bits.  This tended to preface an appeal to the Star Trek fiction of physical meals being synthesized by just the right kind of advanced technology.  The possibility that such fiction may become fact is not necessarily dead in the water, but it means that we shall probably have to stop thinking about things like a glass and the wine it contains as objects.  Rather, they are "side effects" of how their constituent atoms happen to be behaving;  and, unless we can get beyond technology that visualizes atom behavior and move to the domain of technology that induces atom behavior, digital technology is unlikely to provide us with that relaxing glass of wine at the end of a hard day.

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