Are we setting up our children for a bright new world that most of us don’t understand?
Have a look at your own hair, pull one out if you feel like it and if you can spare it! Hold it between your fingers and really study it. It is thin but strong. Now I want you to imagine cutting the hair in half, length-ways so it is half the width as before. For women who, like me, have on occasion picked at split ends and separated a strand into two, much to the annoyance of our hairdressers, you will know this is possible. So now you have two strands each half the width of a human hair.
Now imagine taking one of those strands and splitting it again, and again so you now have something that is an eight of the width of a human hair. Most of you will start to have difficulty in the picturing the width any more but stay with me and go with the analogy for at least a little longer.
Imagine you take each one those eight strands, each an eight the width of a human hair and think about splitting it into ten. That is now an eightieth the width of a human hair. But we haven’t finished yet. Now take that strand that is an eightieth the width of a human hair and split it into a thousand strands each one eighty-thousand times thinner than the average human hair. We can’t picture it, we can’t even see it any more, but it is there.
The width of the hair that you are left with is measured as 1 nanometre. It is the same as if we split a meter into 1,000,000,000 pieces, each of those will be a nanometre. You may wonder why I am telling you this; well I will come to that a little later.
We are used to teaching our children about binary and some of us may have even explained it as 1s and 0s that represent the presence and absence of electricity. But how many of us have wondered what that actually means. What does it look like inside those mysterious black circuits on the motherboard? What is going on in there? I have been thinking about this recently (geeky I know but felt I wanted to really understand what was happening and not in a theoretical way but to be able to picture the reality of what is happening).
Minute transistors are flickering constantly at incredibly high speeds, letting electricity flow or stopping it from flowing through the circuit and Boolean logic gates. These tiny dancing dots of energy, each one a single “bit” of data, works together with millions of other bits of data to allow us to store images, play music, control the light-switches and temperature in our homes and keep us safe in ways we have no ideas about, using sensors and triggers we don’t even notice any more.
These transistors are small. In 2016, researchers at Berkeley Lab created a working transistor which is just 1 nanometre long. Eighty-thousand of these tiny transistors would fit in the width of the human hair you were looking at earlier. I can’t imagine it - my small brain can’t picture the minute worlds inside the chips on the motherboard. I can see the image (as shown above) and can see a small part of it working but I really can’t fathom the entire complex pulsating mass that is going on in an incredibly small area. It may as well be asking me to count the grains of sand on the beach, I just am unable to really comprehend the tininess of these transistors. You may assume now it has got so small we would stop, that the is nowhere else for it to go. But technology is not stopping there.
Atoms. Scientists are looking at storing electric pulses on an atomic level. This has already happened. The smallest transistor ever built - in fact, the smallest transistor that can be built - has been created using a single atom by an international team of researchers at the University of New South Wales, Purdue University, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney. You may think this is the end to Moore’s law (the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years) and that processing power would stop expanding. But you would be wrong. Instead of a tiny transistor allowing us to store only a 1 or a 0 each atom could be able to store 1 of 4 possible states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.
No, I don’t have a clue what plasma is either but somewhere in the world much cleverer people than me are working on making this a reality. Instead of each atom only storing 1 or 0, it would be able to store 0,1,2,3. What may sound like something that is only dreamed of by science-fiction will become a reality in our students’ lifetime, the enormous processing power that this new technology will allow will enable the students we are teaching today to create things we cannot dream of. The possibilities of what they will be controlling makes AI a very real possibility in the not too distant future.
While many teachers may be struggling with getting their lower set on a soggy Friday afternoon to create a loop to draw a square in Scratch, there will be students in the country who will help lead this new technology forwards. Not every student will be able to be a leader in this field, but a few will take the basics and run with it.
They may well look back on those lessons of creating truth tables with a wry smile knowing that with the new processors there are not just a true or false outcome but a couple of others in the middle to worry about too. However, the basis of what you are teaching them will help. The creative processes and confidence to try new things should be encouraged. We can’t possibly understand the world our students are entering, we don’t know the jobs they will be doing so can’t possibly predict all the skills they will need. But we can give them a love of learning, an interest in pushing boundaries and a curiosity to see what is just around the next corner.