Cafe season caps off with computer talk

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By Carol A. Clark

In its search for food, a slime mold performs a basic computation. It finds the shortest path – and its process is essentially not that different from what a computer does as it finds the shortest path in a labrinth.

At the latest Café Scientifique talk for teens, held Thursday evening at the Bradbury Science Museum, Computer expert Christof Teuscher of Los Alamos National Laboratory spoke about what computers are – and might be – capable of.

“Half a century ago, computers were terribly heavy, noisy, slow, and unreliable,” Teuscher said. “What will computers look like in 20 years? How and where will they be used? Will computers be implanted in your body? Will computers allow you to expand your brain power?”

In his talk, “Computers As We Don’t Know Them,” Teuscher presented images ranging from his old bulky Commodore C64 computer to a Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag measuring the size of a fingertip, which both contain the same amount of memory. RFID tags can actually read up to 33 feet away, he said.

Teuscher described what computers are made of, including the motherboard, main processor, silicon chip and transistor, explaining that the transistor is the switch that controls and amplifies the “current” in the computer.

“The advancement of computers in the past few decades has caught many by surprise,” he said. “No matter where you go today, there are computers that you either recognize as such or that are hidden and invisible to your eye.”

Modern cars contain up to 100 small computers, he said. Car airbags are controlled by several computers and a few tens of sensors, which determine a passenger’s weight, the size, the angle and the force of a possible impact, and then decide by means of complex algorithms – to the millisecond – when or if to deploy each available airbag.

“Thanks to an astounding progress in the miniaturization of electronics, your cell phone can now do more calculations per second than early supercomputers, and the tiny electronic chip in your credit card has more memory than the first personal computers,” Teuscher said.

The most promising areas for further progress in computers, he said, are the nanosciences, biosciences and neurosciences.

“Nanotechnology allows us to build novel materials from scratch, to manipulate atomic-scale objects, and thus offers the potential to build even smaller computers,” he said. “Bio-molecular components can be used to perform computations, too, and it may be possible in the near future that you could, for example, swallow intelligent medication that decides in the body where to go and what exactly to fix. Advances in neuroscience will allow us to better understand the brain and to replicate some of its functions by means of computers, nanotechnology and biotechnology, and thus to create more intelligent machines.”

There is no reason to believe that machines will dominate humans, he said, but clearly, in many ways machines already do many things that no human can do.

Teuscher studied how to deal with electronics, electricity, electro mechanics and computers. He said his mentor taught him to always ask the question, “How would I fabricate a given object?”

“Try it for yourself,” he said to café participants. “It gives you a completely new perspective and appreciation of objects.”

Teuscher studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in the French speaking part of Switzerland. He earned both his master’s degree and Ph.D.  in computer science.

Teuscher’s current research focuses on what he calls the most exciting and adventurous part of computer science: the computers for the next five to 20 years.

“This cutting-edge research is about pushing fundamental and technical limits, realizing visions, and doing things that no one imagined would happen a few years ago,” he said. “It never gets boring because every day is a step into no-man’s land, where lots of open questions and challenges are waiting.”

Café Scientifique is a relatively new and unique program that brings teenagers from all walks of life together to explore, discuss, and debate the latest ideas in science and technology.

Los Alamos High School junior Camilyn Sherrill admitted she was bribed by free food when she attended her first café. “But I stay because I like it,” she said.

Classmate Lorenza Brookhorst agreed, saying, “It’s just really interesting and the speakers always know what they’re talking about so we learn a lot. This is an opportunity for kids who take science seriously to get together and have fun. Teenagers don’t always get opportunities like this – this is the first and only program like this in the country and I think there should be a lot more.”

Michelle Hall, who started the program about a year ago and serves as project director and Los Alamos Site coordinator, said, “It’s been a fabulous experience for me and all the youth leaders. We’re looking forward to starting up again in August and having a new list of topics the kids have picked.”

To submit ideas for future talks, access www.cafenm.org/ideas.html.Students interested in becoming youth leaders with the program can e-mail Cafe@scieds.com.