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A photographer takes a picture of the new iPod Nano during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on September 12, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. IBM scientists are working on an alternative to silicon that mean lighter, faster, cheaper chips.

You might be old enough to remember the first portable phone? It was as big as a brick and almost as heavy as one too. 

Well, thanks to advances in the silicon microchip, which have gotten smaller and faster, we have smartphones that slip into our pocket. And we have tablets that perform almost as well as desktop computer and other similar advances. But in recent years, computer scientists have questioned how much smaller and faster the silicon microchips can get.

So the tech world is a buzz today with news that IBM might have found a way to substitute silicon with carbon nanotubes to make microchips even smaller, lighter and faster. But that's just the begining, says Supratik Guha, the director of physical sciences at IBM.

"You can also look at it something becoming cheaper, which is an equally important part," Guha says.

Guha says the promise of carbon nanotubes is that they will make it affordable to make ordinary objects smarter.  

"You know maybe you’d have some electronics in a food carton that would measure its freshness," Guha says. 

And technology can’t be too small when it’s not the primary function of the object -- say, like a sensor in your watch. 

Maggie Hendrie, a professor of interaction design at the Art Center of College Design in Pasadena. She says size isn’t the most important going forward. At some point, your smartphone can only get so small because "people’s fingers are a certain size," says Hendrie. And the screen can only get so small before can’t see it. Hendrie says the carbon nanotube is important for what it makes possible like voice and gesture-activated computing.

"So I make a phone call using a Siri and I'm not dialing it I can use my wristwatch," Hendrie says. "Once we start using other types of interation then the object can almost disappear."

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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