My dad, a veteran of the mainframe era, still reflexively says 'kilobyte' when he means 'megabyte' -- it's like the linguistic part of his brain refuses to accept how the scale of the data we routinely manipulate has changed. (I don't blame him. In 1980, my first computer had more memory than the amount he'd had to share with co-workers years before; now a single cartridge on one of my son's toys packs more RAM than all the gaming and computing devices in our house through to 1988 put together.)
It looks like we'd better brace ourselves for the next shift in prefixes. IBM and the Georgia Institute of Technology have built the first silicon-based chip that can run at over 500 GHz. Right now the chip can pull this off by operating at temperatures near absolute zero. (Pictured is Georgia Tech's Ram Krithivasan, a member of the research team who is clearly resisting the temptation to stick his finger into the cryogenic station housing the chip.) Computer simulations suggest that the chip will be able to hit terahertz (THz -- might as well get used to that abbreviation now) speeds even at room temperature. (More details in the IBM press release.)
We're still a ways off before our MP3 players are so fast they've figured out what songs we want to hear before we've turned them on, but you just know this is going to start trickling down before we know it. We might be ushering in Star Trek . We might be ushering in The Matrix . (As ever, my money's on the robot uprising.) Or we might be ushering in an era when our handhelds just crash much faster. In any case, it's kind of bewildering to get such a clear (albeit frigid) glimpse of the future.