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2/29/2004

Transforming consequences of technology

By Justin Gillis and Jonathan Krim
The Washington Post

Despite the slow pace of commercialization, one blockbuster nanotech product has already come to market. And the brief history of that product illustrates how nanotechnology could eventually upend the world’s marketplace.

In late 1988, Stuart S.P. Parkin, a scientist at IBM, picked up on a strange new finding related to magnetism in an obscure physics journal. The work had been done at exceedingly cold temperatures, but Parkin soon achieved the same effect at room temperature.

IBM launched a huge commercial push. In the late 1990s, the company brought out computer disk drives that could store many gigabytes of information in a small space. This was true nanotechnology, for it depended on a new magnetic detector made of incredibly thin layers of metals, including a layer of ruthenium less than one-third of a nanometer thick. “We
really are building these structures atomic layer by atomic layer,” Parkin said.

The extreme sensitivity of the detector meant that IBM could squeeze many, many more units of information onto a computer disk. IBM’s success threw the world of computer disk makers into turmoil. “The technology was so superior that everyone else had to start buying parts from IBM, because they couldn’t manufacture competitive drives,” said Thomas Theis, the IBM research executive.

Disk makers weren’t the only industry roiled by this discovery, though.

The capacious disk drives, now able to store hundreds of gigabytes of data, are the critical piece of technology that has made it possible to download huge amounts of music from the Internet onto a computer, or to turn a massive collection of compact discs into a digital library that fits on a device like an iPod. The key component of an iPod is a tiny computer disk based on IBM’s breakthrough.

Record companies, their business plummeting as illegal file sharing has risen, are scrambling to find a new business model that works in a world of spacious disk drives. Many people have stopped buying compact discs, and record stores are going down the tubes. Movie companies are fighting frenzied court battles to keep from falling victim to the same fate as the music companies.

Film and camera companies have been thrown into turmoil, too, for disk drives make it possible to store thousands of pictures electronically, rendering digital photography cheap and convenient. The film business is sinking, and Eastman Kodak Corp., one of the icons of American business, is reeling.

Parkin said the drives can even be credited with making the Internet in its present form possible. The World Wide Web pages that companies and universities create are all stored on computer disks, and if IBM or somebody else had not made the breakthrough, Parkin said, there would be no place to keep such a huge amount of digital information.

IBM recently sold its computer disk business, but its scientists, including Parkin, are back in the lab, using nanotechnology to look for new data storage techniques that will render their last one obsolete.

“There isn’t any human artifact that we manufacture that won’t eventually be dependent on the kinds of discoveries being made in laboratories now,” Theis said. “The long-term consequences of this technology are going to be truly transforming. The trouble is, you can’t predict the details of what that world will be like.”