TechWatch: Are We Ready for Smart Dust and Nanobots?

The miniaturization of technology is obvious to most. But the real challenges and opportunities come from the implications of size rather than spatial dimensions. Miniaturization enables the memory stick for readily transporting large volumes of information, and for the loss of corporate data that goes out the door in these memory sticks. It enables “smart dust,” the transmitting, sensing, and storing of information in something as small as dirt, which can be used for good and bad.

In the Ethix conversation with Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president at Intel Corporation [Ethix 57, January/February 2008], we learned about the mind-boggling reduction in size for transistors, a fundamental element in our computers. Gelsinger spoke of creating transistors about 50 nanometers in size, 1/20th the size of a germ. There are similar size reduction stories for memory devices as well, enabling the storage of huge amounts of information in a very small space.

Smaller and Cheaper

Yesterday I saw an advertisement for a memory stick with a two gigabyte capacity for under $10. A four-page single-spaced document might be 40 kilobytes in size, so one of these memory sticks could hold about 50,000 such documents. So the first implication of size is that it has become easier and cheaper to store and transport large volumes of information.

But this is just a present snapshot. Drawing on a number of sources, here is some data on the affordability of computer memory over time:

1956 $10 million per gigabyte
1989 $36 thousand per gigabyte
2000 $20 per gigabyte

We can expect this trend to continue.


Some opportunities from this miniaturization and corresponding price reduction are very clear and others are still being realized. From my vantage point, the introduction of the memory stick is one of the most significant products of the last decade. I can take a presentation to an event, including video, simply by carrying something as small as a pen.

The convergence of technologies now enables memory sticks to include a digital recording feature as well. “I was in an interview with someone the other day and asked their permission to record our conversation. When they agreed, I pushed a small button in my pocket and said the recording was going. “This is incredibly convenient,” said Scott Griffin, recently retired CIO of The Boeing Company.

The miniaturization has also led to the latest innovation from Apple Computer — the Mac Book Air. This weighs three pounds, is about .76 inches thick at the spine and narrows to .16 inches at the front with a full-sized keyboard and display and with high performance. It will lead to ever more portable computing. When Steve Jobs introduced this new product at MacWorld 2008, he brought it out in a standard office envelope.


With every opportunity comes new challenges, and this is certainly the case with small and very capable products. “Miniaturization is one of the things that keeps CIOs awake at night,” said Scott Griffin.

“Information can readily walk out the door in someone’s pocket. And the more memory these small devices contain, the greater the threat. All of the Fortune 50 companies have experienced data loss from today’s environment of laptops and memory sticks. It will only get worse as miniaturization continues.”

So what does a business leader do to combat this threat? “The focus is on policy to require encryption of data on the hard drives of computers,” according to Griffin. “And policy can limit the use of memory sticks. But with miniaturization, it becomes ever more difficult to ensure compliance with policy. Again, this will only get worse.”

New Opportunities

As miniaturization continues, we can get a hint of what is to come by looking at research. We can count on the continued miniaturization and declining costs to bring real consumer products to market over the next years. Much of this will sound like science fiction, but it is not. Here are some examples of things coming out of nanotechnology, an emerging field that we will focus more attention on in the future.

“Smart dust devices are tiny wireless microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) that can detect everything from light to vibrations. Thanks to recent breakthroughs in silicon and fabrication techniques, these ‘motes’ could eventually be the size of a grain of sand, though each would contain sensors, computing circuits, bidirectional wireless communications technology and a power supply. Motes would gather scads of data, run computations and communicate that information using two-way band radio between motes at distances approaching 1,000 feet,” according to a report by Thomas Hoffman, ComputerWorld, March 24, 2003.

Work has been emerging from the program sponsored by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. government. The first phase of this research project was completed in 2001, and many branches of the work are continuing. In his research report, Kris Pister offers a wide variety of applications for this technology, from product tracking to military surveillance, to tools for the disabled. This report is available on the web by searching “smart dust” and “Pister.”

A bit further out is the work on nano robots, molecule-sized devices that could travel through your bloodstream, performing repairs within your body. Most sources put the achievement of this particular objective 40 years or so away, but as work progresses, I expect to see intermediate byproducts that have an impact.

There is much more, as the possibilities coming from miniaturization are endless. Many pets today have embedded chips containing the vital information about the particular pet. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to imagine humans having such chips. The most obvious application would be for children who wander off. Such small tracking devices would bring peace of mind to the parent concerned about the location of the child. But the adult application of this technology may be much more interesting. Consider the potential of such a device not only storing information about you, but also information for you. This could be your address book, your credit card, and your memory stick always with you, an electronic extension of your brain!

New Downsides

Of course, each new avenue of opportunity opens the door to an abuse as well. It is easy to dismiss this as so many do. Kris Pister, in his report on smart dust, says, “Yes, personal privacy is getting harder and harder to come by. Yes, you can hype smart dust as being great for big brother. Yawn. Every technology has a dark side — deal with it.”

I would agree that every technology has a dark side, and we do need to deal with it. But it takes a great deal of imagination and careful thought to identify potential dark sides and to develop mitigating strategies. This new world requires much more careful thought than Pister suggests is necessary.

Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, opened his famous article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired Magazine, April 2000, with these words:

“From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies, their ethical dimensions have concerned me, but it was only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how great are the dangers facing us in the 21st century.”

If you haven’t read the article, you should. It is available on the web. Personally, I think Bill Joy’s comments are a bit over the top. But we see so much hype about the possibilities of the new technologies, we occasionally need a dose of reflection on the other side.


Miniaturization is an important topic for any business leadership staff, and certainly CIOs should be at the center of the discussion. Opportunities for mobile working and sharing of information abound. Challenges for protecting the information assets of the organization increase. Understanding and preparing for these issues is a vital part of being in business in the 21st century.

The new opportunities may seem outside the realm of non-technology businesses, but they are not. They will change the way businesses think about their relationships with their people, as the details of important business secrets find their way into the extended brains of the employees. Employees need to be concerned about how the company might access the information in their bodies!

Miniaturization is more than a size issue. Indeed.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.