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Pity the Poor PC: Its Days May Be Numbered

Every four years, the association for Computing Machinery stages an exposition to take a peek at high tech's future. At ACM's first preview of the new millennium, held in mid-March in San Jose, Calif., there was the usual assortment of exhibits and expert forecasts--and one overriding message: The personal computer as we know it is on the way out, or should be.

Of all the speakers who bemoaned the PC's shortcomings, William A.S. Buxton, chief scientist at Alias/Wavefront Inc. in Toronto, was especially caustic. For two decades, the PC has remained essentially unchanged, apart from having "more crap on it," he said. If Rip Van Winkle had dozed off in 1982, just after IBM launched its first PC, he would have no trouble with today's machines, he said. Buxton even suggested that the dearth of progress in designing friendlier computers may be to blame for the slump in PC sales and, by extension, in high-tech stocks.

So what will the post-PC era be like? Well, many functions will fade into the woodwork--literally, if the exhibits on display were any indication. Microsoft Corp. showed a living room with embedded smarts controlled by wireless gadgets that understand speech. At Georgia Institute of Technology's booth, a model home featured a kitchen with sensors that read bar codes on packages to help prepare recipes and calculate when to reorder foods. And Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) unwrapped a medicine cabinet that uses face-recognition software to identify the image in the mirror. It then reminds family members what medicine to take, makes sure they grab the right vial by reading the label--and, for those with allergies, relays the day's pollen counts from the Internet. At the American Physical Society's annual meeting in Seattle in mid-March, superconductivity was hot again, recalling the frenzy at the 1987 meeting. It followed the discovery of high-temperature superconductors--unprecedented materials that conduct electricity without loss at temperatures above that of liquid nitrogen (-196C), an inexpensive refrigerant.

This time, the excitement stemmed from the surprise announcement in January of superconductivity in magnesium boride, a common, off-the-shelf compound, by Jun Akimitsu at Japan's Aoyama-Gakuin University. The APS hastily organized a special session on Mar. 12, where the crowd heard 79 reports on follow-up work--even more than the 50-odd papers at the 1987 session.

The research frenzy was not triggered by the temperature at which magnesium boride loses all resistance to electricity, which was an unimpressive -234C. Rather, the scientists were amazed that a common compound had been missed during a decade of searching for novel superconductors. That indicates that more such materials may exist, and additional candidates were presented at the meeting. Robert J. Cava, a Princeton University chemist, announced finding superconductivity in a nickel-containing magnesium compound.

Even though these materials become superconducting only at frigid temperatures, they are inexpensive and promise to be much easier to fabricate than brittle and expensive ceramics. Plus researchers are already starting to raise their superconducting temperatures.

Meanwhile, a team at Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Bell Laboratories just announced the first superconducting plastic. Their polythiophene material works at a frigid -270C, far colder than superconducting ceramics. But the researchers think refinements will lift the temperature--and they expect the tricks they learned will produce superconductors from other polymers, too. -- The Tongue Display Unit can speak to the brain in sensations other than taste. Developed by researchers Paul Bach-y-Rita and Kurt A. Kaczmarek at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the device looks like a tongue depressor connected to a small electronic box. Images from a video camera activate gold electrodes on the mouthpiece. "Seeing" with the tongue takes many hours of practice, but eventually the brain adapts. (Blindfolded volunteers could hit a ball rolling down a ramp.) The system was originally developed to help Navy divers in murky water, but the researchers think it could also be used to restore a sense of touch to quadriplegics.

-- Medicines from weeds? Don't laugh--common weeds may harbor more new drugs than tropical rain forests. While doing research among the Highland Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, John R. Stepp, a University of Georgia graduate student in anthropology, found they regularly extract medicines from weeds. Even in communities adjacent to forests, the Maya prefer weeds. So Stepp believes untold riches may be lurking in nearby weed patches.

-- Purdue University's annual Rube Goldberg contest is coming up Apr. 7. Engineering students from around the country will compete for the wackiest way to peel an apple--honoring the 200th anniversary of Johnny Appleseed's journey through the Midwest. The idea is to build a contraption using at least 20 unnecessarily complicated steps to do a simple task.

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