Friday, April 30, 2010

How much memory is enough?

We tend to think of the internet as the single most comprehensive information resource on the face of the planet, and that's probably true.

However, advances in memory technologies such as high-density Flash RAM and ever larger hard drives are making it easier to carry more of that information around with us, even if we don't have internet connectivity.

I find it stunning that, since I became involved in computers back in the 1970s, the price of solid-state memory has fallen from around two cents per byte to an incredibly low one half a millionth of a cent per byte today (for USB Flash drives).

Even more astonishing, is the massive reduction in the physical size of solid-state memory.

My first hand-built computer had just a few meagre KBytes of RAM and this required a large circuit board with eight large 18-pin chips for each of those 1024 bytes. Today we have gigabytes of memory squeezed into an area little more than the size of your thumbnail.

And things just keep getting better.

Researchers are now touting another potential breakthrough in memory density which, they claim, could allow over a billion pages of information to be stored in a single square-inch of area.

The key to this technology is a technique for creating very highly packed arrays of magnetic nanodots.

Imagine being able to have the entire contents of the all the world's libraries in a device small enough to slip comfortably inside your pocket. Indeed, a snapshot of the entire internet could be condensed into an e-Book reader so that it was always available to you, no matter whether you had connectivity or not.

The mind boggles at the potential for applications for this high density of data storage.

Of course the technology is far from ready for production at this stage, several obstacles standing in the way -- not the least of which is coming up with a way to address these nanodots for the purpose of reading and writing.

The potential for such a device goes far beyond just storing data however. If the nanodots could be configure so as to be altered by the pattern of light falling on them then new "gigapixel" cameras could be created that provided really practical optical zoom capabilities.

The only problem we may face in the future is coming up with enough data to fill the ever-larger and ever-cheaper memory we find ourselves in possession of.

Unless you want a copy of every YouTube video ever posted, you may find that you reach your fill long before your portable electronic device runs out of memory. And then there's the problem of finding the time to actually assimilate that information.

Perhaps, at some time in the not too distant future, we really will have more computer-based memory than we'll ever need in our lifetimes.

Won't that be nice?

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