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European Visions for the Knowledge Age

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European Visions for the Knowledge Age

A Quest for New Horizons in the Information Society

Paul T Kidd (Ed)
ISBN 978-1-901864-08-3 (Paperback)
Price: See buy on-line link



Chapter 3
From Bits to Atoms
Roberto Saracco
The human race has achieved spectacular progress through its capacity to conceptualise. Conceptualisation does not use atoms, but something intangible that goes on inside peoples' minds. Wording is an important part of this process; modelling is another. Understanding the boundaries of objects and capturing shapes are also part of conceptualisation.

Atoms are the starting point for many human activities, but adding a human touch moves beyond atoms. Take coding as an example. The activity of coding, be it in a written language, in a spoken one or in gestures, started at an early stage in human evolution. Over the past few hundred years, coding has become the object of scientific theories. Engineers and computer scientists have also made coding the foundation of their professions. They have exploited the tremendous power of conceptualisation and consequently created most of the objects that are associated with the modern world, from tiny electronic parts to huge skyscrapers. These have been conceived and designed, refined and finally planned with the help of computers.

Computers work by manipulating bits. Bits are digits, either one or zero. In computing, a bit is the smallest unit of information handled by a computer. These are represented physically by a very small pulse of electricity sent through a circuit, or a small point on a magnetic surface that can change state to represent either one or zero. Bits convey little information of use to humans, but they can be manipulated by computers to present information in a way that is useful to people.

The modern Boeing 777 aircraft was designed from the very start using computers, that is to say, by manipulating bits, rather than using physical mock-ups. Bits have also helped achieve spectacular progress in medicine because scientists have been able to capture and model the inner working of the body and to gain understanding through conceptualisation. The decoding of the human genome, the complete collection of human genetic material, was achieved through the use of computers, and the result is but a first step in a healthcare revolution that will have a significant impact in the future.

Because of the value of bits, the past 40 years have been focused mostly on the way to represent anything in bits and in creating the means, often in the form of machines, to transform atoms into bits. Sound, pictures, temperature and many other measurements, are all examples of things that have been converted from the physical into bits stored in computers.

There are however, many areas where significant work is still needed to create bit representations. One example is the representation of emotions. There will be continuing progress towards representation in bits; researchers are working to capture single atoms and to code them. At the same time they are learning how to manipulate single atoms.

In the future it is possible that two big research areas connected to bits may come to fruition. Both are likely to change the world in very significant ways: the understanding of bits and their transformation into atoms.

The abundance of bits will stimulate research into these two topics. The first area of research will help make sense out of the deluge of information. Understanding what is in an image and how the various elements relate to other information will greatly increase the use that can be made of bits. The second area, the one addressed in this chapter, recognises that atoms satisfy many human needs: bits belong to the perception of reality, and atoms are the reality.

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