Computers of the Future May Be Minuscule Molecular Machines

The computers of the future may do data storage and processing using the myriad qualities of molecules such as size, orientation and color. (Image credit: DARPA)

Zeroes and 1s are so last century.

The next computer revolution may rely not on a binary number system, but one that can store millions of pieces of information in the minuscule attributes of molecules, such as orientation, size and color.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense charged with dreaming up futuristic new technologies for the military, is developing a new "Molecular Informatics" program to do exactly that. The long-term goal? Harness chemistry's natural variation to crank through massive amounts of data processing and storage, creating minuscule molecular machines.

"Chemistry offers a rich set of properties that we may be able to harness for rapid, scalable information storage and processing," Anne Fischer, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a statement. "Millions of molecules exist, and each molecule has a unique three-dimensional atomic structure as well as variables such as shape, size, or even color. This richness provides a vast design space for exploring novel and multi-value ways to encode and process data beyond the 0s and 1s of current logic-based, digital architectures." [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]

Researchers have developed other molecular storage systems in the past. For instance, scientists have encoded the entire works of Shakespeare in DNA. These systems don't degrade quickly, and they fit in a tiny package — after all, the genetic instructions for encoding an entire human fit inside a teensy newborn baby — but they have drawbacks. For instance, the data can't be accessed quickly, and to be read, its DNA encoding must be translated into traditional digital format. And fundamentally, DNA, with its four letters of encoding, provides a fairly limited way to encode information, experts have said.

To get away from this dependence on binary systems (that is, information stored in 0s and 1s), scientists need to invent a whole new information architecture. That means asking and answering basic questions like: How can information be encoded in a molecule? Can molecules perform certain logical operations? And what does it even mean for molecules to compute?

"Fundamentally, we want to discover what it means to do 'computing' with a molecule in a way that takes all the bounds off of what we know, and lets us do something completely different," Fischer said. "That’s why we absolutely need the diverse knowledge of many different fields working together to jump into this new molecular space to see what we can discover."

Originally published on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.