A future filled with tiny, molecule-sized computers--fast and powerful enough to do things like translate conversations on the fly or calculate complex climate models--may be closer than people think, top nanotechnology researchers said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston today.

"We may be five to six years ahead of schedule in nanoelectronics, and some of today's research is nearing the stage where it could be turned over to industrial production," said James Ellenbogen of the Mitre Corporation.

Powerful electronic and computing devices, built at the molecular scale, moved to the forefront of scientific research in 2001, as several research teams hooked up tiny devices such as transistors, wires, and switches to form working circuits for the first time.

Marc Kastner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Charles Marcus of
Harvard University discussed recent advances in creating and measuring the activity of mesoscale structures such as quantum dots. These "artificial atoms" could provide the architecture for future nanocomputers, with miniature chips packed with circuitry a hundred thousand times more dense than today's best silicon chips.

Scientists must gain a better understanding of the dynamic behavior of these circuits and their components, said Paul Weiss of Pennsylvania State University and Mark Ratner of Northwestern University. Weiss presented new data on tracking single molecules across a surface, while Ratner discussed how charge transfer takes place on the nanoscale.

Cees Dekker of the Delft University of Technology shared recent research on the basic electrical properties of individual carbon nanotube molecules and said they can be used to create electronic devices and circuits at the single-molecule level.

Jan-Hendrik Schön of Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies described his team's success in crafting logic circuits out of self-assembled single-molecule transistors. Schön said that it might be possible to integrate such technology into today's silicon-based circuits.

The nanotechnology seminar also covered topics in molecular motors, nano-medicine, and nanophotonics-harnessing light with miniscule devices for telecommunications and other uses.