Friday, 12 April 2013

Chinese boffins should know better

Ceci n'est pas une superordinateur
I generally rather enjoy the slightly anarchic view of technology news provided by website The Register, but I have to confess that one of their recent articles got my dander up, though to be fair to El Reg, more because of what I presume was in a Chinese press release than because of the way it was reported.

'Chinese boffins predict iPad-sized supercomputers' screams the headline. Now, I ought to point out  for those not familiar with it that The Register has a house style of using ironic labels, so Apple lovers are usually 'fanbois', iPads are usually (though not here) 'fondle slabs' and scientists are always 'boffins'. But what I dislike here is the use of tenuous leap from an interesting bit of science to a vapourconcept (if I can generate my own Regism).

What the Chinese scientists have done is observe the quantum anomalous Hall effect (yes, as I pointed out recently, physicists aren't very good at catchy names) in the lab. This is one of those long-predicted but elusive quantum effects and has the potential, in principle, to enable electronics to be made more compact than they currently are (which is saying something) because it may be possible to overcome the tendency of electrons to generate unwanted heat from electrical resistance.

So basically what we have is a first demonstration of a hard to produce effect, in a lab, in conditions that couldn't possibly be duplicated in mass production without radical changes that may well stop the effect working. Yes it is just possible that it might result in faster computers... but it may well not. And the idea of an iPad-sized supercomputer being the outcome is a bit like saying 'We have now built Voyager 1, which due to special relativity has travelled 1.1 seconds in the future. This technology may mean we will be able to build Back to the Future style time machines.' Okay, it's possible, but it's a big leap.

According to the article, team leader Xue Qikun is quoted as saying 'The technology may even bring about a supercomputer in the shape of an iPad.' Mostly scientists are getting the idea that making predictions for the technology that could be produced from their science based on extreme extrapolation  is simply a mistake that results in reduced public trust in scientific pronouncements. But clearly some have still to learn.

You can read the Register article here and see the paper (if you subscribe to Science) here.

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