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Businessweek Archives

Cheaper Chips That Never Forget

Developments to Watch


COMPUTER MEMORY CHIPS are notorious for developing amnesia as soon as their power is switched off. While "flash" and other so-called nonvolatile memory chips can remember without power, they are costly and difficult to make. But that may change, thanks to the discovery of "protonic" memories by a team that includes Karel Vanheusden, an assistant research professor at the University of New Mexico, and William L. Warren, a materials scientist at nearby Sandia National Laboratories.

In late 1995, during experiments on how silicon wafers can be probed for defects, the team noticed that protons, or hydrogen ions, deep within the wafer were responding to electrical signals on the surface. "Nobody had seen these moving protons before," says Vanheusden. Now, the team reports in the Apr. 10 issue of the journal Nature that the buried protons can be precisely controlled with standard microcircuits--and thus can be used to store data. This may provide the underpinnings for a new type of cheap forget-me-not chip.

Protonic memory chips won't need the fancy processing used for other such chips. They also have "a big performance advantage over flash--they can operate at very low power levels" and prolong battery life in laptops, says Warren. Texas Instruments Inc. has already produced test chips.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS Otis PortReturn to top


IF YOU WHISTLE, HE MAY EMERGE SHYLY FROM THE FOREST--BUT only if he wants to. After years of confinement in Fujitsu Ltd.'s computer science laboratory in Japan, a digital pet called Fin Fin (left) is coming to PCs in America.

At first glance, Fin Fin looks like an elaborate screen saver. But he's more mysterious--and far more sophisticated. The $60 CD-ROM-based Fin Fin behaves like a sentient creature. He is the product of eight years' work and a $30 million investment in two hot areas of software research: artificial life, or A-life, and intelligent agents. Harsh or angry sounds, transmitted through a microphone that plugs into a Windows PC, will send him scurrying into the forest to hide. But he'll quickly learn to recognize children's voices and come when they call. "He'll hang out with you and let you feed him," says Michael Pontecorvo, director of technology at Fujitsu Interactive Inc. in San Francisco.

Another A-life game, called Creatures, is also making its U.S. debut. The developer, Cyberlife Technology Ltd. in Cambridge, England, says its pets already inhabit 150,000 PCs in Europe and Australia. The animated critters, called Norns (above right), hatch from eggs on your PC or Mac screen and rely on their owners to teach, maintain, and play with them. You can monitor the Norns' health and brain activity, trade them with friends over the Internet, and crossbreed them. Mindscape Inc. will market Creatures in August for $40.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

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IT MAY BE THE MOLECULAR equivalent of parachutes and featherbeds. A technique developed at Purdue University gently deposits ions in precise patterns on surfaces. Ordinarily, says chemist R. Graham Cooks, ions that hit a surface crash and break apart. By cushioning their landings, Cooks has opened up exotic possibilities for catalytic reactions, data storage, and various other electronic applications.

Ions--atoms with a missing electron or one too many--are routinely manipulated with electrical fields in machines called mass spectrometers. These devices are used to measure trace chemicals, such as pollutants in air or water, or contaminants in drugs. But Cooks writes in the journal Science that a mass spectrometer can also be used to place ions softly on surfaces such as gold--by attaching bulky silicon molecules to the ions, creating a parachute that slows down their descent. He can also build a sort of molecular featherbed on the gold, further cushioning the ion landings.

In addition, by creating patterns in the featherbed surface, Cooks says he can tailor more efficient catalysts for such applications as producing industrial polymers. 3M is interested in possible applications.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS David GrahamReturn to top

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