What is the “final frontier”? Star Trek fans will tell you it's space. IBM, however, is thinking much smaller.
The company's research division released a stop-motion movie in May whose main character is a stick figure only a few atoms in size. A Boy and His Atom is the story, not surprisingly, of a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and proceeds to play with his new friend by dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. The performance marks a breakthrough in scientists' ability to capture, position and shape individual atoms with precision using temperature, pressure and vibrations.
“Think of this as Claymation—you shape your Wallace and Gromit, put them in your scene and take a picture of it,” says Andreas Heinrich, principal investigator at IBM Research. “Then you change the position of the characters and take another picture.” Heinrich and his team arranged and rearranged atoms to create 242 distinct frames, then later stitched them together to make their movie, which Guinness World Records has certified as the tiniest stop-motion film ever made.
Each of the dots used to make the character is actually a molecule of carbon monoxide resting on a copper surface, framed so that the audience can see only the oxygen atoms. The researchers used a two-ton scanning tunneling microscope to magnify the atoms' surfaces more than 100 million times. The microscope features an extremely sharp needle that the scientists used to move the molecules to specific locations. This ability to manipulate individual atoms has big implications for the future of computing and communications. “We're interested in exploring data movement and storage at the atomic scale,” the stuff of quantum computing, Heinrich says. Whereas a classic computer uses bits—a 0 or a 1—to store information, a quantum computer lets you—in principle at least—have a 0 and a 1 at the same time in a quantum bit (or a qubit). Quantum computers could calculate faster than computers using classic bits, he says, adding that his laboratory's mission is to determine whether atoms can someday be harnessed for computation and data storage.
IBM sees the movie as one way of introducing the general public to this type of work. Although the story is told “in the language of science,” Heinrich notes, it does not necessarily tell a scientific story: “It tells a human story of a boy dancing with his friend.”