Building the future by joining the dots

Fundamental advances in technology don't always turn into products but even the ones that fail are part of the essential push forward

Technology is at its most magical not when it is inaccessibly complex, but when it is disarmingly simple. We expect lasers to be hewn from inconceivably pure glass and carefully tuned with exotic crystals by men in equipment-strewn laboratories: we are much more impressed when they're made by dipping a tube into a small vial of gunk and heating it with a hairdryer.

The University of Toronto researchers behind the gunk party trick are masters of the inaccessibly complex, too. The gunk is a colloidal suspension of semiconductor quantum dots that dries out in the right geometry to form a laser: if you go poking around in the mechanisms of quantum dots, you soon find that some of the mathematics involved touches on the deepest and most intriguing conjectures of modern physics.

Enough philosophy. The really important implications of this work aren't that James Bond will defeat his next enemy with a tube of nail varnish and a Babyliss. Nor is it that this particular breakthrough will be the one that ends up pushing Moore's Law on through 2020. Although it may well have a part to play, there is every chance that this research will fail to live up to its promise, that any one of a number of reasons will prove the concept unworkable, uneconomical or inappropriate to real world problems. That's not the point.

What matters is that this work is being done. If this idea doesn't pan out, then Raman lasers might, or vertical cavity surface emitting lasers, or chaotic resonating bowtie lasers — there are many exotic animals in this particular zoo. There will be a point in the future when the old idea of using electricity to carry signals between — or even on — chips stops working well enough to match our skills at chip design. At that point, we either come to a halt or thank heavens that decades beforehand, people like the Toronto researchers were working hard at giving us options. These are the real guarantors of our future, and it is a pleasure to record that this future is on its way.