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Technology: metacomputers, nanotechnology, electronic publishing.

Library Technology

Technology: Metacomputer Nanotechnology, Electronic Publishing

Our computing environment is continually expanding. Individuals may now link: to online public access catalogs that provide extensive information about local library holdings; to commercial databases mounted on campus wide information systems; to remote host databanks that offer access to thousands of specialized databases; and to list servers on international networks that allow contact on a twenty-four hour basis with colleagues and experts on a worldwide basis.

Most frequently the myriad computers providing the local support to desktop workstations which make the farthest flung connections possible are transparent to those who use them--at least from a hardware point of view. According to Larry Smarr, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, these transparent connections will not only increase in number but will also provide as yet unavailable enormous computing power and connectivity to other systems.

According to Smarr, this new computing environment will be possible through the development of "metacomputers"....

MetaComputers: PCs to Super Computers

Smarr envisions the metacomputer, a term which he coined, to serve as the keystone of a national computing network, He says, "Its development will enable scientists and engineers to undertake projects that require computing speeds thousands of times faster than today."

Today, metacomputers are still in the conceptual stage. But, according to Smarr, they may best be understood as a "collection of computers all held together by state-of-the-art technology and balanced so that, to the individual user, it looks like a single computer."

As a first step, workstations and PCs must be linked to four national supercomputer centers. Even as that is being accomplished, Smarr says it will be necessary to beef up the capacity of dozens of computer and communications networks already established in the U.S. Another important step will be to link the "powerful computing equipment resident in the NSF centers to make that equipment even more powerful."

NSF's Supercomputer Centers

In addition to the supercomputer center on Smarr's campus, other NSF sites are located at Cornell, the University of California at San Diego, and at a facility jointly managed by Carnegie Mellen University and the University of Pittsburgh. The centers, which were established in 1986 by the National Science Foundation, are charged with providing academic researchers direct and expeditious access to state-of-the-art computers. In only four years, these four centers have recorded substantial and unpredicted use. Smarr says that more than 11,000 researchers working on about 5,000 projects have taken advantage of the supercomputing power at the four institutions.

The great majority of these users access the centers via national research and education networks. And as a side benefit, the centers themselves have been able to develop highly tailored software programs to assist these researchers and scientists in their work.

Smarr predicts that metacomputers will be widely available by the mid-1990s. His prediction is based on the 1992 fiscal budget offered by the Bush administration. It includes a line item of $638 million to support high performance computing and communications. If that portion of the budget is approved by Congress, development work on the metacomputer at the supercomputer centers will proceed steadily for the next five years.

Nanotechnology: Molecular Engineering

Even as the supercomputer centers are at work linking more and more powerful computers with personal desktop equipment, other scientists are concentrating on developing engines that work at the molecular level. And for much the same reason that Marvin Minsky is recognized as the "Father of Artificial Intelligence," K. Eric Drexler, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, will likely be considered the "Father of Nanotechnology."

Drexler, author of Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986), explains that this science is "based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures to complex, atomic specifications." (Nano is a prefix that represents ten to the minus ninth power, or, expressed in another way, one billionth).

Last October the Stanford Department of Computer Science hosted the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology. The conference was itself sponsored by the Foresight Institute and Global Business Network. Participants came by invitation only and included among the 150 researchers and scientists specialists in protein design, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, scanning tunneling microscopy, quantum electronics, computer science, micromachines, physics, molecular modeling, and molecular electronics.

Their charge? To discuss the work of "understanding and building structures, devices, and systems on the scale of molecules."

Manufacturing Technology of the 21st Century

According to Ed Niehaus, whose company provides pro bono public relations work for the Foresight Institute, developments in nanotechnology will allow us to "arrange molecules any way we want to. We are now looking at ways to manipulate atoms and to get better and better at doing that."

Another goal of nanotechnology specialists is to build nano-sized engines that will be self-replicating and able to "build copies of themselves." We already have an example of that in nature. One example is the common virus. These organisms store this capability in their molecular structure. And, for that reason, they can be classified as self-replicating assemblers.

It's clear that Niehaus is disappointed that there are no federally funded projects related to nanotechnology presently underway. Nevertheless, the Foresight Institute has chosen to stick to its strategy of "top down positioning." The Institute is convinced that it is the best way to alter the vision of decision makers in science.

Niehaus is adamant in his belief that the organization should establish a strong populist foundation in the scientific community to avoid the popularization or sensationalization of nanotechnology at the outset. At this time, however, the Foresight Institute thinks it has a solid enough constituency to start talking to federal funding agencies. According to Niehaus, Drexler recently spent a full day presenting a nanotechnology package to the Office of Technology Assessment.

For the future? Niehaus says that it will be some years before "any conference oriented to manufacturing aspects of nanotechnology will make any sense." Nonetheless, a second, and still invitational, conference is on the drawing board. Perhaps it will be held in 1992.

Drexler's own background includes doctoral level work at MIT on the topic of space architecture. His Foresight Institute, which pursues future engineering, is a membership organization which publishes a regular newsletter.

Electronic Journals

Electronic journals, publications which are primarily available only to users of computer networks, are rapidly gaining in numbers. Two very popular library oriented journals include PACS (published by Charles Bailey at the University of Houston) and the Newsletter on Serials Pricing (published by Marcia Tuttle at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

The first is only available online, the second is distributed in printed form by the Ebsco Subscription Agency. Both are exceedingly popular and represent early forays into what will certainly become commonplace information media both for our profession and other information seekers.

Already a spate of conferences have been announced on this topic and there is certain to be a proliferation of printed articles that address the several issues this new publication media raises. To put one issue to rest now, however, it's certain that no matter what their significant benefits may be, they will never replace information delivered in print.

Next month, a view from London about the library technology scene in the United Kingdom.
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Title Annotation:Library Technology
Author:Nelson, Nancy Melin
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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