Another Double-Edged Sword

Spectral lines

Image: ROB MAGIERA

Whenever we write about new weapons, we get objections from all quarters. We get stern rebukes from those who believe that, for reasons of national security, new weapons should never be discussed. We get letters of concern from those who believe that money spent on weapons technology brings the human race one step closer to extinction. We even get harangues from readers who believe that all nations should spend more on weapons technology to deter future war.

We run weapons articles because we think our readers should know about them. Being technologists, they are exactly the kind of experts whose opinions should be heard in the debates over whether and how these devices should be used.

The high-power microwave weapons discussed in this issue [see "Dawn of the E-Bomb" ] caught the public's attention early this year as the United States was preparing to attack Iraq. There was much speculation that these weapons would be used for the first time in this conflict.

Whether or not they were actually used is still subject to debate. But one fact, at least, is certain: simple but effective forms of microwave weapons are ready to go.

Microwave weapons' claim to fame is that they can fry the electronics that are now intrinsic to most military equipment without killing the personnel that go with them. Thus they could be used to disable incoming missiles, destroy battlefield communications hubs, and even halt military transports whose engines and controls are now nearly all chip-dependent—without killing a single soldier. They could also be used in urban warfare settings to paralyze a city's electronic nervous system without killing its civilian population.

The downside? As with all significant weapons development, it's big. For one thing, there's proliferation: besides the 20 or so nations that are now actively developing this technology, criminals and terrorists will find microwave weapons easy to deploy, albeit in a crude and cheap form. For another, when these weapons are deployed, it can be difficult to determine whether and by whom they have been used. And then, too, it is not clear that leaving a city's civilian population without light, power, and telecommunications because you've destroyed its electronic infrastructure is all that much better than bombing them the old-fashioned way. Finally, there is the terrible irony that bedevils all advanced weapons development—those who are making these weapons may have the most to lose if the weapons are turned against them.

BioEE: The Next Job Frontier

It's definitely not the answer to current EE unemployment problems, but bioelectronics is the basic research wave of a future EE job market. And applicants will need to have a background a lot broader than that of the typical EE today. As the search for ways to make complex electronic devices smaller and smaller continues, the work of electronic engineering has become more and more interdisciplinary.

Take the work of Angela Belcher ["Germs That Build Circuits"]. She's engineering viruses to make transistors, and as farfetched as that sounds, she predicted last summer that she would have succeeded around the time you read this. Her bold vision reminds us of the pioneers who saw the future in transistors when the vacuum tube was still the biggest game in town. Or who went to work for Fairchild Semiconductor when that name would have drawn a blank stare even in northern California.

Belcher's is but one endeavor in a field that is also variously known as nanobiotechnology or bionanotechnology or molecular nanotechnology. Regardless of what you call it, the basic idea is the same: using tools from molecular biology/biotechnology/chemistry and electronics to develop circuits and components and devices.

Its practitioners are a versatile lot: Belcher, for example, has an undergraduate degree in molecular biology, a Ph.D. in solid-state chemistry, and a postdoc in electrical engineering. She's a rare kind of researcher now, but we can imagine a time when BioEE will move beyond being a blue-sky engineering path.

Biology and the physical sciences have a long and rich shared history—molecular biology, for example, was born in part from the migration of physicists into biology. So the notion that there is technology to be mined from this vein is not as surprising at it appears at first glance. It will be a center of research—and, ultimately, of commercial—-activity for decades to come. If you are an EE student, think about getting on board. And take a few bio courses while you're at it.

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