You can look at Moore’s law in more than one way. You can see it in its literal sense, applied to computers doubling in speed every 18 months or so. Or you can see it as a metaphor for any type of technology that sees regular increases in speed or power. The last few days have seen announcements of several new technologies, variously falling into one or even both of the camps. Strap yourself in for a new stage in the evolution of technology.

First there is solar power. Earlier this year economist Paul Krugman was slated by those in the know when he suggested that solar power was seeing its power increase at a rate that was commensurate with Moore’s Law. The mistake Krugman made was to not realise there is a theoretical limit to solar power. It is called the Shockley-Queisser limit named after William Shockley and Hans Queisser, who proposed that the theoretical maximum efficiency of a solar panel is 34 per cent. In short, there is a just a physical limit to how much energy solar power can generate, and we appear to be pretty close to that limit.

Enter stage right the Nano-Science Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, which is connected to the University of Copenhagen. It has been working on nano-wires, or what some might call miracle technology.

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. O.1 of a nanometre is the size of a helium atom. Nano technology is engineering at an incredibly small scale. Nano-wires is an exciting application of nanotechnology.

“It turns out,” or so suggests an announcement on the University of Copenhagen web site, “ that the nanowires naturally concentrate the sun’s rays into a very small area in the crystal by up to a factor 15. Because the diameter of a nanowire crystal is smaller than the wavelength of the light coming from the sun it can cause resonances in the intensity of light in and around nanowires. Thus, the resonances can give a concentrated sunlight, where the energy is converted, which can be used to give a higher conversion efficiency of the sun’s energy.”

The announcement continues: “The typical efficiency limit – the so-called ’Shockley-Queisser Limit’ – is a limit, which for many years has been a landmark for solar cells efficiency among researchers, but now it seems that it may be increased.” The new break-through”, continues the announcements “will have a major impact on the development of solar cells, exploitation of nanowire solar rays and perhaps the extraction of energy at international level. However, it will take some years before production of solar cells consisting of nanowires becomes a reality.”

So that’s Moore’s law at work in solar energy.

But the University of Copenhagen announcement also made reference to nanowires having potential use in quantum computers.

This brings us to Moore’s Law in its original meaning, relating to computers doubling in power every 18 months or so.

Enter stage left IBM. Big Blue has just picked up the Swiss Tell Award for investment in new nanotechnology. IBM stated recently: “Carbon nanotubes and scanning probes derived from the atomic force microscope – cousin of the scanning tunnelling microscope – show particular promise in enabling dramatically improved circuits and data storage devices.” So, in English, the words to note are improved circuits and data storage devices. In short, IBM is working on nano technology to make computers much faster. We may or may not be close to reaching some kind of limit to computer power based on traditional silicon type technology. But IBM is exploring alternatives.

Big Blue put it this way: “IBM’s research into nano-scale structures that self-assemble may one day obviate the need to ’hand-position’ atoms. Nanotechnology will allow the design and control of the structure of an object on all length scales, from the atomic to the macroscopic enabling more efficient and vastly less expensive manufacturing processes and providing the hardware foundation for future information technology.”

And finally there is a company called Hyperoptic which is set to offer broadband speeds of one gigabit a second to some locations in London. That’s ten times faster than the fastest services from Virgin Media and BT, which are themselves around ten times faster than the service most of us are used to.

Some economists are cynical about the effect technology is having on the economy. Their cynicism may or may not be justified up to now. But the point is that – thanks to Moore’s Law in the sense being used here – technology is set to have an ever more profound impact on our lives and the economy.  This is both exciting and frightening, with unpredictable consequences for jobs, and the way in which wealth is distributed. Economists, in making their forecast for the next few years, are totally failing to factor this in.

©2013 Investment and Business News.

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