Fiction Becomes Fact at IBM

In Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag begins to suspect that there's more to life than the interactive television that seems to interest his wife and her friends on a constant basis. As a result, Montag turns from his job of burning books -- whose pages burn at 451 degrees -- to collecting them.

Bradbury, who wrote the book in 1953, never explained how interactive television came into being, but I think he may find it amusingly paradoxical that one of the first steps toward making it a reality has come by way of "freezing" a computer chip to exactly 451 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) researchers announced today that they have broken the speed record for silicon-based chips. The researchers were able to rev them up to 500 gigahertz -- 250 times faster than the fastest chips in today's cell phones -- by pushing the new chips to minus-451 to keep them from melting under such high speeds.

As impressive as this is, what's even more impressive is that the chips can still operate at an amazing 350 GHz at room temperature. This speed, combined with the fact that IBM can reportedly build the chip using typical semiconductor manufacturing technology, suggests that these new chips may find their way into homes and offices with the next 18 to 24 months.

One of the more practical applications of such a chip could well be delivering high-definition movies on demand directly into people's homes -- a la Fahrenheit 451.

Another application of this powerful new technology would be equipping cars and other robotic equipment with wireless sensing technology that enables those devices to operate without direct human intervention.

A number of other applications are also possible, and that's why I am very bullish on IBM's long-term prospects. This advance essentially provides IBM the opportunity to leapfrog a number of its competitors, including Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) , Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , and Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , and thus capture a larger share of this growing market.

As a citizen, however, I will admit that such radical technological advances give me some pause. After all, one of the reasons Montag was able to save the day in the book was that he was able to outmaneuver the Mechanical Hound, a computerized attack dog that was sent to track him down.

Given the pace of advances such as IBM's latest super chip, one has to wonder how much longer we have until science fiction turns into science fact, and then how soon it will outpace the sci-fi and possibly lead to different -- and not-so-positive -- outcomes.

Care to read more about IBM's latest activities? Check out:

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Jack Uldrich does not yet fear Mechanical Hounds, but the fact that Bradbury's book was supposed to take place in the 24th century at least has him thinking. He is the author of Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big and can be reached at jack@nanoveritas.com. He owns shares of IBM and Intel. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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