Thursday, April 22, 2004

Fundamental limits.

This interesting article makes the argument that there are fundamental physical limits to our ability to store data magnetically. More precisely, that there's a limit to how fast we can store data magnetically without introducing too much noise, so as to make the data unreadable. The limit found is only about 1000 times our current best speed, so not that far away in some sense. Of course, although I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the article, it doesn't necessarily mean that some scheme cannot be found logically (i.e., in software) to circumvent the limit, nor that we can't find some other means of storing data (optically or with proteins, for example) which might end up being faster. Still, it's worth giving some consideration to the fact that the electronic and scientific marvels on which we rely will not necessarily improve endlessly without bound.

It's not news that there are fundamental physical constraints to what we earth-bound humans want to do in this world. After all, I can't fly, at least not without an enormous apparatus involving millions of dollars, thousands of people, and hunreds of government regulations. I can't jump to the moon. We're used to limits; limits are what define us in some sense.

But we're also used to the endless cornucopia of new goodies coming directly from the frontiers of science. We have come to expect them. Some of us have even come to live for them. Lately we have seen the first commercial implementation, for example, of "quantum cryptography", a completely unbreakable--not just in practice but in theory!--cryptographic system which relies on some of the extreme weirdnesses of quantum mechanics. This is cool!

It will be a sad day for mankind when the cornucopia dries up. At least we owe it to ourselves and future generations to push our technology right up to the edge of any fundamental limit we may find.

And then to find a way to go around it.

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