7 far-out technologies closer than you think

If it's cliché to say that yesterday's science fiction is today's off-the-shelf tech, it's only because it's come true time and again.

That process of transforming the crackpot into the practical hasn't come to a standstill: There's a fresh crop of tech on the way that makes use of everything from quantum mechanics to carbon nanotubes.

Here are seven technologies, once either at the bleeding edge or entirely off the map, but now emerging as realities or soon-to-be realities on the desktop and in the data center.

1. Quantum computing
The tech: The core concept of quantum computing has been on the drawing board for decades now: Exploiting the behavior of matter at the subatomic level to create a computer that solves problems exponentially faster. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM have all thrown money at it, while the NSA wants to use it to render current-generation encryption obsolete.

The timeframe: Depending on whom you ask, quantum computing's already arrived. One firm, D-Wave, has been marketing its quantum-computing product to Google, NASA, and Lockheed-Martin, with list prices in the millions of dollars. But controversy remains as to whether D-Wave's products provide real improvements over a regular computer, and we've yet to see a truly earth-shaking application of quantum computing in the real world.

2. Quantum cryptography

The tech: Hand-in-hand with quantum computing comes quantum cryptography, a way to use the effects of quantum mechanics to create cryptography far more secure than anything in the nonquantum realm.

The timeframe: It's here, albeit still in its infancy, but being taken seriously by many parties as a defensive next step against the potential fall of existing cryptography to quantum computing attacks. Europe and China are racing to create satellites to relay messages via quantum encryption, and quantum cryptography technology is already being consumerized by a few intrepid folks.

3. Alternate storage technologies

The tech: Flash storage may be orders of magnitude faster than spinning disks, but the need to create a technology orders of magnitude faster than flash is already on the agenda. Several contenders are vying for that crown. Among them: IBM's next-generation PCM (phase-change memory) that's an exponential upgrade over conventional flash, and memristors, a long-theorized and long-elusive technology also meant to provide a massive speed boost to memory.

The timeframe: The first generation of PCM chips is here now. Memristors, on the other hand, are only available as lab specimens, with a commercial version still years off.

4. Alternate transistor technologies

The tech: The transistor lies at the heart of most every piece of modern technology, but we're fast approaching the maximum density for creating transistors out of silicon. Carbon nanotubes have been stumped as a possible replacement material, along with molybdenite and indium gallium arsenide. Other technologies like the vacuum-channel transistor are also in the works.

The timeframe: Out of the bunch, carbon nanotube transistors seem to stand the best chance of being brought to market soon. They're based on a technology that's already well understood, and they're within five years of being turned into a commercial product, according to IBM.

5. Silicon photonics

The tech: "Fiber optics on steroids" might not be a bad description. Silicon optical devices and infrared light can be used in lieu of copper and electrical impulses to move signals around at greater speeds. And with silicon, optical components can be combined with conventional electronic ones on the same chip -- to speed up interconnections on a board, across a system bus, or even within a chip itself.

The timeframe: For networking, it's very close to release. Intel has its own optical interconnect, MXC; Fujitsu has a similar product coming down the pike. And big names like Facebook are turning an eye toward the tech as a way to speed up their data centers. But for CPUs themselves, it's still a lab toy.

6. Next-generation system memory

The tech: The long-awaited DDR4 is supposed to finally hit the market later this year, but other system memory technology is in the works. Micron's Hybrid Memory Cube technology, for instance, uses stacked memory chips to provide what Micron claims is five times the throughput of DDR4 in one-third of the space and using one-fifth of the power.

The timeframe: Very soon now -- Hybrid Memory Cube tech is set for use in Intel's "Knights Landing" chip set, due next year, and Nvidia has a similar variety of memory (although of a different flavor) coming for its Pascal GPU.

7. Memristors, silicon photonics, and The Machine

The tech: Hewlett-Packard calls it "the Machine." A project currently under wraps in HP's labs, it's an ambitious attempt to create a potentially revolutionary computing product by combining silicon photonics and memristors. The machine -- or rather, Machine -- could theoretically run orders of magnitude faster than existing systems.

The timeframe: Work on the Machine started about 18 months ago, but until an actual working prototype appears, the vapor is strong in this one. According to BusinessWeek, the Machine "isn't on HP's official road map," and could be delivered "as early as 2017," or take until the end of the decade. Bets are off as to whether someone else puts the same innovations to work in a more immediately available incarnation.


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