I Don’t Believe It!

So it’s been an interesting week in the world of amazingly unbelievable new technologies. I can’t make up my mind which is the most implausible: test-tube sausages, invisible military vehicles, or Boolean values that are only 70% true. It reminded me of the story about the young boy who asks his Grandfather whether it’s true that he still has his old army tin helmet from the war in France, to which the old man replies “Yes, it’s in the attic behind the tank”. The young lad’s eyes widen in amazement as he exclaims “What, you’ve got a tank up there as well!”

According to my newspaper, scientists at Maastricht University in Holland have perfected a technique for artificially growing stem cell muscles that could be used to make sausages and burgers. Maybe they don’t think that because the result is somewhat grey and rather mushy it will put people off, or that very few are likely to respond well to a menu item “Stem Cell Muscleburger and Fries” in their local fast food joint. And they reckon it can be made to “look and feel (!) more like traditional meat”, so that’s OK; though the current cost of a quarter of a million dollars per burger may limit market demand.

Mind you, the place where money is often no object is in building military equipment. My local news site The Register recently reported on the Swedish military’s announcement of an invisible tank. They even published a rather nice picture of an empty field to show what it would look like. They don’t say how they knew where it was parked at the time, but I guess the technology is safe from industrial spies taking surreptitious photos of it.

And at least there is some scientific explanation of how it works. You have a video camera pointing at the scenery behind it and display the image on sheets of pixels nailed to the outside of the tank. It’s a bit like James Bond’s invisible Aston Martin. I wonder if that’s where they got the idea. And it’s neat that a related search on Bing brings up a link “Images of James Bond’s Invisible Car”. Obviously it doesn’t work very well because I can see the car in the pictures.

So maybe both the sausages and the invisible tanks are semi-believable. But what about Matteo Mariantoni’s quantum computer where the bits flying around the super-cooled interior are both one and zero at the same time, or maybe they’re one only 70% of the time and zero 30% of the time, or something else. There’s a video where Matteo explains how each qubit consists of trillions of trillions of particles, and a nice graphic of a pinball table that helps to make it clear exactly what’s going on inside.

They do admit that it will be a while before this becomes the home computer paradigm. And I reckon I’d be a bit nervous of having something on my desk that needs to be cooled to near absolute zero, and has trillions and trillions of particles rushing about inside trying to make up their mind whether they’re ones or zeros. Though I’m not sure my current laptop is any more convinced of the values of the variables rattling round inside it when I review what I’ve written some days.

Meanwhile, the video of the quantum computer even shows a view of the machine itself, which rather resembles a large mechanical jellyfish. Of course, it probably it won’t look quite so scary once they put it in a fancy exterior case with some USB sockets on the back. They could even talk to the nice people in Sweden and make it invisible to save the bother of designing a nice case, but whether I’d remember where I left it after I stop for my lunchtime Quarter-pound Muscleburger with Cheese might be a problem…

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