According to hopeful U.K. tech developers, the future of the computer chip isn't silicon, it's plastic. And the future of computing won't take place on a hard drive — it'll be happening everywhere.
English engineers and economists alike have been extolling the virtues of plastic-based electronics, which have emerged as a fourth-quarter great hope for the U.K. economy. One of the technologies people are most excited about is a method of printing circuits directly onto sheets of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, one of the most common kinds of consumer plastic — it's what a majority of soda bottles are made of.
The plastic-circuitry proponents are quick to point out that traditional silicon chips, comparatively speaking, are expensive and laborious to produce, and that a circuit mapped on plastic is more durable than one etched in metal. Moreover, the printing process used for PET circuits — a cousin to the kind of ink-jet printing most of us are familiar with — can be applied to almost any surface, plastic or otherwise.
Thus, if the industry takes off the way silicon chips did, we could get to the point where we have complex electronics not just in our computers and hand-held devices, but pretty much anywhere a manufacturer thinks would be a good idea. Paul Smith, a lab manager at the Xerox Research Center of Canada in Ontario, recently spoke to CNN about the potential applications: "a little display on your prescription bottle that will warn you if you've taken your medicine already," or "hospital gowns where a display is in the fabric that provides up-to-the-second vital stats."
A greater ubiquity of electronic displays, of course, would almost certainly mean a greater ubiquity of advertisements, not to mention an even higher number of information- and entertainment-based distractions than we currently live with. Writing this week in Wales Online, Robin Turner speculated about the possibility of "breakfast cereal boxes" that broadcast "YouTube-like films and announcements" — because if there's one conceptual marriage that makes sense, it's cereal boxes and YouTube.
But there's no reason to think we'll see these changes anytime soon. The British government recently launched a 28 million-pound (or $45 million) initiative to keep plastics development robust, but given the U.K.'s swelling national debt and political disagreement over how to jump-start the private sector, it may be hard for a while to move currency around for experimental-tech projects.
Even once R&D gets underway in earnest, we don't know whether consumers will actually want to blanket their lives in circuitry. And finally, it's worth noting that PET tends to degrade somewhat in the manufacturing process, producing a residual compound that smells vaguely like fruit. It's one thing to live in a world where computer displays surround you at every turn, but if everything smells of fruit as well, it just might prove to be a deal-breaker.