Knowledge on demand: communication for the future

Knowledge on demand: communication for the future

David E. Scharett

In today’s military, we hear a lot of discussion about network-centric warfare. While the term might sound new, the basic concept underlying network-centric warfare–the robust networking of forces to improve information sharing and collaboration, which in turn enhances shared situational awareness–has been around since the beginning of warfare. With the advent of highly advanced sensors, which can detect enemy actions across the entire electromagnetic spectrum and which possess the ability and computing power to store, analyze, and disseminate incredible volumes of data, the U.S. military has been able to adjust its operational tactics and respond before an enemy can act. These capabilities were clearly demonstrated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and in the initial battles and drive to Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, those operations involved warfare against the nation-state of Iraq, and our military actions proceeded from a clear understanding of how nation-states organize for and plan military operations.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, we are faced with an enemy that does not represent a nation-state, that fights by no civilized rules, and that has shown itself to be extremely adaptive. In order to counter this type of enemy, our Nation must sustain its technological superiority if it is to maintain its dominance on the battlefield–a battlefield that, in the Global War on Terrorism, now includes the territory of the United States itself. The overriding, essential element in winning this type of warfare is having actionable knowledge, in lieu of actionable information (knowledge being considered broader, or of a higher order, than information), on such things as–

* Planned enemy activity.

* Current battles engaged.

* Equipment readiness status.

* Consumption of fuel, ammunition, energy (fuel and batteries), and water supplies (location, condition, and quantities on hand).

* Availability of other essential supplies for military operations.

Attaining this actionable knowledge is as important as having the capability to communicate such knowledge to others in a timely manner so that decisive actions can be taken. We are calling this capability “Knowledge on Demand.”

Knowledge on Demand

Research at the atomic, molecular, and photonic levels is producing revolutionary means to gather, store, assess, and disseminate data, information, and, ultimately, actionable knowledge. So what can we expect RAMP research to produce that potentially could revolutionize the logistician’s ability to attain and disseminate actionable knowledge in combat-relevant time? What follows are several possibilities.


One product of RAMP research is nanoelectronics. The term “nanoelectronics” refers to electronics at the nanoscale. It is an area that potentially offers technological advances such as–

* Pervasive computing devices. These would be tiny, even invisible to the unaided eye, devices that are either mobile or embedded in almost any type of object imaginable, including vehicles, tools, and clothing.

* Intelligent equipment.

* Supercomputing, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence.

* Better screen displays and the replacement of paper.

* Improved inputs for computers and information technology systems.

* Quantum encryption, which involves sending data by way of photons (the smallest unit of light).

* High-speed networking.

The list of nanotechnologies in various stages of conception, development, and even commercialization already is large and growing. If present trends in nanoscience (the study of matter at atomic and molecular scales) and nanotechnology continue, most aspects of everyday life will be subject to change. For example, consider these advances–

* By patterning recording media in nanoscale layers and dots, the information on a thousand compact discs could be packed into a space the size of a wristwatch. Besides the thousand-fold to million-fold increase in storage capacity, computer processing speeds will make even the best computers that we have today seem slow.

* Devices that transmit electromagnetic signals, including radio and laser signals, will shrink in size while becoming inexpensive and more powerful. Everyone and everything could conceivably be linked everywhere and all the time to a future World Wide Web that feels more like an all-encompassing information environment than just a computer network.

Communications and Computing

Nanomemories and nanodisk drives, which may become commercialized this year, will offer quantum leaps in gigabytes (GBs) of storage per dollar of storage cost and in speed of access. (A gigabyte is a unit of computer memory or data storage capacity equal to 1,024 megabytes.) In fact, emerging technologies ultimately could transform the economics of computer memory storage so that a penny could buy a petabyte (one quadrillion bytes) of storage.

We also should expect to see improvements in screen display technology. Nanotechnology advances may well provide clearer pictures than even the best plasma screens can provide today. But much more importantly, nanotechnology advances can offer clearer and thinner displays for common electronic devices such as the cell phone and personal data assistant.

Enterprise networking at 8 GBs per second and above is already a reality. At this time, that level of networking is much too expensive for common use in networks. However, new semiconductor processes operating below the 100-nanometer level promise radical improvements in the economics of high-speed networking that can make it affordable.

The University of California at Los Angeles has built a high-speed, digital memory device using commodity plastics transformed by nanotechnology. The device is made from a polystyrene film containing gold nanoparticles and holds promise for low-cost and high-density memory storage.

Terahertz Communication

Terahertz (THz) radiation falls in the gap between infrared radiation and the high-frequency radio waves currently used for mobile phones and other wireless communications systems. In fact, researchers in Germany recently transmitted audio signals via THz waves. This development could lead to a new type of high-speed, short-range wireless communication network. It is predicted that wireless THz networks could one day replace wireless local area networks or Bluetooth, which is a short-range cable replacement.

Apart from a few applications in biological imaging and spectroscopy, THz communications technology has been relatively unexplored. However, as the demand for high-data-rate wireless communication continues to grow, researchers are turning to higher frequencies and are starting to explore the THz region. Two significant THz communications research initiatives are ongoing. One initiative, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is called TeraHertz Operational Reachback (THOR). The second initiative, by the National Synchrotron Light Source facility at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is called Terahertz Lightbeams.


The emerging fields of nanoscience and nanoengineering are leading to an unprecedented understanding of and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. This emerging technology is likely to change the way computers, and other devices and equipment not yet imagined, are designed and manufactured. One group of these “designer” materials is called “metamaterials.” Metamaterials are artificially constructed materials with properties and responses that do not occur in nature. One metamaterial that is of particular interest to logisticians is photonic band gap material because it could significantly advance knowledge-on-demand capabilities for logisticians.

Photonic Band Gap Materials

The use of photonic band gap (PBG) materials can simplify and improve the efficiency of microchips. Recent advances in microstructuring technology have allowed the controlled engineering of three-dimensional PBG structures that are capable of controlling electromagnetic radiation in the near-infrared as well as the visible frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light in certain engineered dielectric microstructures can flow in a way similar to electrical currents in semiconductor chips. These microstructures provide a foundation for developing novel microphotonic devices and the integration of such devices into an optical microchip.

The current state of PBG research suggests that this field is at a stage comparable to the early years of semiconductor technology, shortly before the invention of the solid-state electronic transistor. If this analogy continues to hold, one may find PBG materials at the heart of a 21st century revolution in optical information technology similar to the revolution in electronics we witnessed over the last half of the 20th century.

A PBG material that is helping to revolutionize the production of electronic chips and radio frequency identification tags is silicon on sapphire (SOS), which uses light as a transmission medium. Using light beams instead of wires, a team of engineers at Johns Hopkins University devised a means of significantly increasing the speed at which signals move at the electronic chip level. Their method involves a hybrid integration approach that uses layers of silicon on a synthetic sapphire substrate. SOS is an integrated circuit manufacturing technology used to make radiation-hardened chips for aerospace and military applications. Typically, high-purity, artificially grown sapphire crystals are used. The advantage of sapphire is that it is an excellent electrical insulator that prevents stray currents caused by radiation from spreading to nearby circuit elements.

With SOS technology, incoming signals are converted into laser light, which is sent through the transparent sapphire substrate and then collected and routed, via integrated microlenses and optical components in the chip structure, to other portions of the chip or to adjacent chips via an optical fiber. This method promises to increase transmission speeds up to 100 times over current methods. The technology also allows the chip to operate with less power since the sapphire substrate is an insulator, not a semiconductor, thus avoiding power dissipation through parasitic capacitance (an impeding of transmission). This SOS technology is an improvement over the current bulk SOS processes and also allows issues of packaging and interoperability interface to be addressed at the wafer fabrication level.

According to the market research firm NanoMarkets, a new generation of platforms and applications will be enabled by “nanochips.” Nanochips are integrated circuits so small that individual particles of matter play major roles. NanoMarkets predicts that within the next few years we may see advances that include–

* Pervasive computing machines. These are a new class of computers that will make information access and processing available to anyone from any location at any time. Pervasive computing has been talked about for some time, but new types of processors, made viable by nanotechnology, promise that it will at last become a reality.

* Electronic paper. This technology will realize the decades-old dream of an effective digital replacement for dead trees.

* Nano-intelligent equipment. Nanotechnology promises a dramatic leap forward in the price-to-performance ratio of processors and will produce a new generation of truly artificially intelligent equipment that will efficiently process voice, image, and sensory inputs fed to them by nanosensors.

* Nano-enabled security, control, and monitoring. Nanosensors will deliver information about product types, personal identity, environmental conditions, and more to a new generation of inventory control, security, environmental, and health control monitoring systems.

Piezoelectric Materials

Piezoelectric materials are materials that change their shape when an electric voltage is applied and produce a charge when pressure is applied. Piezoelectric nuclear microgenerators have direct applications in shipping and receiving of cargo and pre-positioning of commodities at remote sites. These microgenerators could supply energy to operate embedded microchips that monitor, record, and transmit information on–

* Environmental conditions experienced by cargo, such as vibration, shock, temperature, humidity, and tampering.

* Layered in-transit visibility, such as the visibility of individual pieces inside a carton, cartons in a pallet or container, or pallets or containers in a transportation platform.

* Extreme-duration power sources used for asset monitoring at pre-positioned force, equipment, or supply sites.

Rare Earth Aluminum Oxide Materials

By melting and cooling levitated material, scientists can understand not just its formation but also its inherent physical properties. (“Levitated material” is produced by an electromagnetic field.) The process allows researchers to saturate a levitated glass they make with a number of attractive properties, such as chemical stability, infrared transmission, and laser activity; other glasses tend to have just one of these properties. The resulting rare earth aluminum oxide materials could serve as the centerpiece for new medical and industrial lasers. They also have broadband Internet applications.

Replacing Transistors in Computing

Challenging a basic tenet of the semiconductor industry, researchers at Hewlett-Packard Company have demonstrated a technology that could replace the transistor as the fundamental building block of all computers. The device, called a crossbar latch, can be made so small that thousands of them can fit across the diameter of a human hair, enabling the high-tech industry to continue to build ever-smaller computing devices that are less expensive than their predecessors. These crossbar latches are purported to be more reliable than today’s transistors and therefore would increase the mean time between failures in electrical components that use them.


Nanograss is a new class of structure resulting from researchers nano-engineering the surface of a material. Nanograss is produced by an entirely new method of controlling the behavior of tiny liquid droplets by applying electrical charges to specially engineered silicon surfaces that resemble blades of grass. This new technique of manipulating fluids has many potential applications, including thermal cooling of integrated circuits for powerful computers, creating novel photonic components for optical communications, and producing small, low-cost “lab on a chip” sensor modules.

Other possibilities include altering the properties of nanograss by applying ultrasound or a small voltage of electricity to change its temperature. Applying ultrasound or voltage causes a buildup of an electrical field at the tips of the nanograss, which changes its wettability through an effect called “electrowetting.” (“Wettability” is the ability of any solid surface to be wetted when in contact with a liquid; that is, the surface tension of the liquid is reduced so that the liquid spreads over the solid surface. “Electrowetting” describes how a water droplet in contact with a water-repellent surface will begin to spread out in the presence of an electric field.)

Electrowetting could allow the electrodes and electrolytes in a battery to remain separated until the battery is needed, thus extending the battery’s shelf life–something that would certainly benefit the logistics community. Conventional batteries, on average, will discharge at the rate of 3 to 5 percent a month, even when not in use. According to research predictions, nanograss batteries will cost less and have far higher power-to-weight ratios than conventional batteries. Within the next 3 to 5 years, nanograss technology also might be used in switches, power splitters, filters, multiplexers, and other devices in order to manipulate light in ways that currently are too difficult to achieve using conventional means.

Holographic Drives

Holographic storage drives able to record up to 10 times more data than the next generation of direct video drives are set to become commercially available this year. These holographic drives will have a storage capacity of 200 GBs of data–the equivalent of 98 million printed pages, or roughly 200,000 one-megabyte photos. This technology could lead to the production of a 1.6-terabyte drive by 2010. (A terabyte is one trillion bytes. All of the books held by the Library of Congress contain about 20 terabytes of text.)

The attraction of holographic storage is that hundreds of separate holograms, known as pages, can be recorded through the full depth of the storage medium. Unlike related technologies, which record one data bit at a time onto the surface of a disc, holography allows 1 million bits of data to be written and read out in a single flash of light. This means that a postage stamp-sized piece of media could be used to store 2 GBs of data and have a transfer rate in excess of 20 megabytes per second. The cost of this media is expected to be as low as 25 cents per GB with an architecture that is anticipated to produce terabyte-capable drives. An added bonus to storing data through this medium is that its contents would be difficult for unauthorized personnel to access.

Genetic Programming

Genetic programming (GP) is an automated method for creating a working computer program. GP starts with a high-level statement of “what needs to be done” and automatically creates a computer program to solve the problem. Evolutionary methods, such as GP, have the advantage of not being encumbered by the preconceptions that tend to limit human problem-solving to well-explored paths. GP is one of the techniques in the field of genetic and evolutionary computation, which in turn includes techniques such as genetic algorithms, evolution strategies, evolutionary programming, grammatical evolution, and machine code (linear genome) genetic programming.

GP starts with a primordial (a basic principle) ooze of thousands of randomly created computer programs. These programs progressively evolve over a series of generations. The evolutionary search uses the Darwinian principle of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) and analogs of various, naturally occurring operations. There are numerous GP applications, including–

* Black art problems, such as the automated synthesis of analog electrical circuits, controllers, antennas, networks of chemical reactions, and other areas of design.

* Programming the unprogrammable, which involves the automatic creation of computer programs for unconventional computing devices such as cellular automata, multi-agent systems, parallel systems, field-programmable gate arrays, field-programmable analog arrays, ant colonies, swarm intelligence, and distributed systems.

* Commercially usable new inventions, which involve the use of GP as an automated “invention machine.”

* Human-competitive machine intelligence, which is an evolving area for GP.

Quantum Computing

Teleportation is the transfer of a quantum mechanical state between two particles. Because the transfer takes place without an exchange of matter, it is reminiscent of the well-known command, “Beam me up,” from the StarTrek television series. Teleportation of isolated particles was invented 10 years ago and demonstrated for photons in free space. Since then, researchers have found a way to teleport an electrical charge in a solid state. This discovery could be used to transfer quantum mechanical bits (“qubits”) in a quantum computer. (A qubit is the smallest unit of information in quantum computing and holds an exponentially larger amount of information than a traditional “bit.”)

Modern computers all operate on the same basic principle: they perform calculations by manipulating individual transistors that represent a single bit of information (either a “0” or a “1”). Quantum computing takes an entirely different approach, using qubits that, through the magic of quantum physics, can be “0” and “1” at the same time. Thus, a single qubit can store and process twice the amount of information as a bit. Combining qubits delivers exponential improvement. For example, 2 qubits are four times more powerful than 2 bits, which means a 64-qubit computer theoretically would be 18 billion trillion times more powerful than the latest 64-bit computer–an impact on computing power that is beyond imagination.

Researchers recently have produced the first usable quantum processors. These initial prototypes are of little commercial use, but the achievement is significant because it represents a major milestone in the quest for virtually limitless computing power. Ubiquitous knowledge on demand for logistics on a global scale is thus one step closer to reality.

Quantum Cryptography

Quantum cryptography uses a stream of single photons to transfer a secret key between a transmitter and a receiver. Each transmitted bit of the cryptographic key is encoded on a single photon. Any attempt to intercept the key changes the quantum state of the photons, which reveals the presence of a hacker.

A team of scientists at NEC Corporation in Japan claims to have smashed the transmission distance record for quantum cryptography. The team says it successfully sent a single photon over a 150 kilometer-long fiber-optic link. This significantly exceeds the previous record of 100 kilometers, which was recorded in June 2003. The NEC’s record-breaking system relies on planar light-wave circuit technology and a low-noise photon receiver. The system was developed by a collaboration of researchers from NEC, the Telecommunications Advancement Organization of Japan, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

According to NEC, its system has two distinct benefits–

* Stable, one-way photon transmission, which reduces the noise of backscattered photons from the optical fiber to less than one-tenth that of conventional round-trip systems.

* An alleged 10-fold increase in signal-to-noise ratio compared with current systems, thanks to the receiver’s increased sensitivity to photons that have been broadened by dispersion in the long fiber-optic link.

The first computer network in which communication is secured with quantum cryptography is up and running in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-funded project in which the data flow through ordinary fiber optic cables that stretch 10 kilometers. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have built a portable system that will allow electronic messages to be transmitted to and from satellites 300 kilometers above the Earth in absolute secrecy. At the moment, computers capable of quantum cryptography are large and expensive because they are custom-made prototypes. However, as this technology matures, the size and cost of its components will decrease.

According to NEC, future systems can produce quantum cryptography transmissions in an optical network in metropolitan areas and are expected to contribute to the realization of an optical-fiber network system providing advanced safety levels that prevent code-breaking.

The United States is experiencing an unprecedented period of adjustment as it transforms its combat forces for the future while executing the Global War on Terrorism. As Army and joint combat forces alter their concepts of deployment and employment, modernization of the logistics systems that support them must continue. Achieving dominance across the entire range of combat operations, particularly operations dealing with asymmetric threats, poses considerable logistics challenges. As logisticians, we need to continue to transform the way we model, design, deploy, and sustain our forces. We, as logisticians, must stay abreast of significant discoveries in new technologies and applications that will benefit Army and joint logistics operations. We should stand ready to incorporate these technological advances into our systems and business processes to maximize the benefits those advances offer through reductions in cost, time, and manpower and increases in equipment readiness.

This series of articles has sought to provide insights into the future potential for Army and joint logistics of research and development at the atomic, molecular, and photonic levels–the Revolution in Atoms, Molecules, and Photons. RAMP research significantly affects three scientific areas of utmost importance to Army and joint logisticians: energy, materials, and communication (in the broadest sense). Now, and to an even greater extent in the future, resupply of energy on the battlefield is a pervasive issue that must be addressed. Material research is another crosscutting scientific area that first and foremost affects system, component, and part reliability. And the drive toward a global, joint network-centric capability requires advances in communication technologies such as data source collection and data collation, storage and analysis, knowledge management and decision support, and information dissemination.

The Army’s scientists and engineers are expanding the limits of paradigm shifts through transformational technology applications that will give our Soldiers unprecedented capabilities to achieve decisive victories. RAMP is the key that will lead to those victories. It is pervasive in all areas of research today. The Federal sector, private enterprise, academia, and international organizations are increasing funding for developmental applications. The products of these technologies can and will provide significant benefits to Army and joint logistics in the months and years to come. The Army’s logisticians must be deeply involved and ready to apply the tremendous benefits gained from RAMP research as we move forward in the 21st century.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final article in a three-part series on future advanced technologies. The first article, published in the July-August 2005 issue of Army Logistician, introduced the “Revolution in Atoms, Molecules, and Photons” (RAMP) and explored the possibilities offered by RAMP for energy production and delivery. The second article, appearing in the September-October 2005 issue, introduced the extraordinary “designer” materials that RAMP research is bringing us and explored the implications of those materials jot equipment readiness, demands on the supply chain, and distribution processes. This third article revisits several of the technological advances mentioned in our first two articles, but it focuses on the potential of RAMP research and development to produce new means of providing the Army logistician with what the authors call “Knowledge on Demand.”




COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group