Fullerene with a captured nitrogen atom. EMILY COOPER, IEEE
No matter where you go, there you are.
Confucius, by way of Buckaroo Banzai
A buckyball is a really cool thing - a roughly spherical cage of carbon created by taking sheets of graphene and heating them in special ways. The resulting structure looks a lot like a soccer ball with a mix of hexagons and pentagons and is also known as fullerene, after Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of tensegrity and geodesic domes.
Fullerene has many useful properties. They are fundamentally stable once created, and their round shape makes them the nanotech equivalent of ball bearings. It turns out, however, that another property, first discovered in 2008, makes fullerene far more useful in the realm of electronics: if you spray a high-pressure hose of nitrogen at the graphite as it is annealing into buckyballs, every so often one of the nitrogen atoms gets trapped inside the buckyball.
By then setting up a magnetic field around the buckyball, the nitrogen atom oscillates. Due to quantum effects, that oscillation becomes strongest at a particular frequency, and that in turn can be used as an atomic clock. A good breakdown of the physics is described here.
The buckyball clock is not quite the most accurate clock yet produced - that distinction goes to Strontium excited by a complex of lasers - but unlike the latter, the buckyball timepiece does not need to be supercooled and require a fairly bulky laser setup. It can be placed within a chip. In September 2019, the first such chip, produced by LocatorX, appeared on the market.
Clocks and location have always been intimately connected. It’s been known for centuries that you can determine how far north or south you are simply by measuring the location of the sun, comparing the angle it made with a compass, then determining the date to figure out how far above or below the ecliptic, the sun was located. Unfortunately, determining how far west or east you are from a given point is considerably more complex, and requires a clock. It’s perhaps not surprising that England’s mastery of horology (and with it, precise timekeeping) gave it a major competitive edge in the 15th century during the age of exploration, though the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks have been building timepieces going back three thousand years.
A fragment of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, believed to be the earliest surviving mechanical computing device, is seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006. ASSOCIATED PRESS
GPS in use today uses many of the same principles. By measuring the location of three GPS satellites in geostationary orbit, a given item can be measured to within roughly a meter. Commercial GPS feeds generally establish a network of cellular transceivers that do the triangulation, and then calculate the position of the GPS device. from the transceivers. It should be noted that most commercial GPS systems have a nominal tolerance of about 10m (about 30 feet), deliberately introduced originally due to fears that the military had of terrorists being able to use GPS for precision targeting. That has been relaxed somewhat in the last decade.
GPS signals do have an inherent fuzziness because of thermal inversions, rain, space weather moving satellites and mechanical wear and tear. They are also susceptible to being shot down; potentially depriving a military response of accurate coordinates, and it is possible to spoof a GPS signal. While society is not yet dependent upon GPS solely, as we move towards autonomous vehicles, that dependency will grow dramatically.
An atomic clock on a chip dramatically changes this situation. Put a buckyball timepiece into a chip component that also stores the time of other timepieces when it receives them, and the precision of your measurement drops below an inch. Embed them in radio routers such as those used for cell towers, and the resolution that a system can “see” expands a hundred-fold.
This will have a profound impact in many ways. If you assign to each clock it's own identifier, you have a tracking system that can pinpoint exactly where your car is on a busy parking lot, and can more quickly respond to potential collisions in a semi-autonomous vehicle because it can determine movements to a much higher degree of precision. This, in turn, reduces the overall complexity that an autonomous AI has to deal with to understand and respond to its environment.
Logistics, supply chain and distribution systems should be able to benefit from this as well. Most RFID systems require proximity for scanning, and because of this, they usually are only useful for determining when something passes a scanner. A pulsed transceiver in a truck could pick up when a large number of items moves beyond the perimeter of the truck without having to build scanners into the gate and can identify what has gone missing if something like this does happen. If the cost gets low enough, this also makes frictionless shopping feasible, as it should be possible to enable or disable such chips remotely.
GPS has replaced the calling component of smartphones as one of the most heavily used applications in today's mobile devices (Instagram may be a close third). GETTY
As such, the US military has become one of LocatorX’s primary customers, though it will likely not be its last. If a vehicle gets stolen, it should be possible to query surrounding LocatorX chips to determine where a given chip was last located, making it far more difficult to chop and fence such vehicles.
The potential for abuse of locator chips certainly exists. In my discussion with Scott Fletcher, CEO of Locator X, this point was brought up. He indicated that their product line had been staggered so that encryption issues were worked out first before the bucky-clocks were rolled out. The combination of a clock and a hardwired identifier on each cheap meant that blockchains and similar distributed ledgers could ensure privacy and provenance and significantly reduce the potential for tampering while still providing an audit trail to ensure that the chips were used legally and ethically.
Most people tend to underestimate the degree to which life has changed concerning GPS, from giving us a better picture of traffic flows to monitoring pollution, helping an area to recover in the aftermath of a disaster, and providing better security. While LocatorX will likely not have that profound an impact, it will turn the somewhat fuzzy glasses that GPS provides into precision lenses giving us unprecedented fidelity in our emerging world.
[Clarification: The LXConnect chip that LocatorX started producing in September includes RFID and NFC, but the atomic clock component will not be shipping as part of this chip until next year. Also, the chips currently do not publish to a distributed ledger.]
Kurt Cagle is Managing Editor for Cognitive World, and is a contributing writer for Forbes, focusing on future technologies, science, enterprise data management, and technology ethics. He also runs his own consulting company, Semantical LLC, specializing on Smart Data, and is the author off more than twenty books on web technologies, search and data. He lives in Issaquah, WA with his wife, Cognitive World Editor Anne Cagle, daughters and cat (Bright Eyes).