Mine is Smaller Than Yours

SLOW Magazine - - Contents -

The world of in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy is com­pet­i­tive, with claims of the small­est this, the fastest that, the strong­est X or the light­est Y com­monly com­ing from re­search labs across the globe. In March this year, com­puter gi­ant IBM an­nounced that it had pro­duced the world’s small­est com­puter – some­thing which the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in the US pre­vi­ously ac­com­plished in 2015 with its 2 x 2 x 4 mm Mi­cro Mote. It didn’t take long for the lat­ter to re­claim its ti­tle, how­ever, as the Michi­gan team an­nounced in June that their new de­vice, which mea­sures a minis­cule 0.3 mm, is so small that a grain of rice looks huge in com­par­i­son.

The Michi­gan team’s cube-like de­vice has sides that mea­sure just 0.3 mm each, mak­ing it about one-tenth the size of the pre­vi­ous world’s small­est com­puter – IBM’S afore­men­tioned sand-grain-sized de­vice, which mea­sured 1 mm x 1 mm. David Blaauw, a pro­fes­sor of elec­tri­cal and com­puter engi­neer­ing who led the de­vel­op­ment of the sys­tem to­gether with sev­eral oth­ers, says that their de­vice can fit into much smaller spa­ces, though there is an­other ma­jor dif­fer­ence. “The IBM com­puter can’t sense its en­vi­ron­ment – it can send a code iden­ti­fy­ing it­self but it does not sense its phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment,” Blaauw ex­plains.

De­spite its teeny size, the Michi­gan team’s new de­vice is fit­ted with a pro­ces­sor, RAM, a pho­to­voltaic power sys­tem, and a wire­less trans­mit­ter and re­ceiver. But be­cause they are too small to have con­ven­tional ra­dio an­ten­nae, they re­ceive and trans­mit data with vis­i­ble light. A base sta­tion pro­vides light for both power and pro­gram­ming, and also re­ceives the data back. The de­vice, de­signed as a pre­ci­sion tem­per­a­ture sen­sor, es­sen­tially con­verts tem­per­a­tures into time in­ter­vals, de­fined with elec­tronic pulses. The in­ter­vals are mea­sured onchip against a steady time in­ter­val sent by the base sta­tion and then con­verted into a tem­per­a­ture. As a re­sult, the com­puter can re­port tem­per­a­tures in re­gions as small as a few cells, pre­cise to about 0.1 °C.

The sys­tem is re­mark­ably flex­i­ble and could be reimag­ined for nu­mer­ous pur­poses. The team chose pre­ci­sion tem­per­a­ture mea­sure­ments, how­ever, be­cause of a need for such tech in on­col­ogy, con­cern­ing both cancer de­tec­tion and treat­ment. The team’s long­stand­ing col­lab­o­ra­tor, Gary Luker, a pro­fes­sor of ra­di­ol­ogy and bio­med­i­cal engi­neer­ing, has a lot of ques­tions con­cern­ing tem­per­a­ture in tu­mours. The the­ory is that cancer cells are hot­ter than sur­round­ing healthy tis­sue, though not enough data ex­ists to prove this the­ory. Thus, re­searchers hope to test this hy­poth­e­sis us­ing this pre­cise, tiny tem­per­a­ture sen­sor. Luker has said that, be­cause the tem­per­a­ture sen­sor is both small and bio­com­pat­i­ble, it can be im­planted into a mouse, for ex­am­ple, and have cancer cells grow around it. “We are us­ing this tem­per­a­ture sen­sor to in­ves­ti­gate vari­a­tions in tem­per­a­ture within a tu­mour ver­sus nor­mal tis­sue and if we can use changes in tem­per­a­ture to de­ter­mine suc­cess or fail­ure of ther­apy,” he has said.

As hap­pened with the Michi­gan team’s pre­vi­ous tiny com­puter, the Mi­cro Mote, a myr­iad of other po­ten­tial uses may be found in time. Ac­cord­ing to Luker, when they first devel­oped the Mi­cro Mote, they didn’t yet know all the things for which it would be use­ful, but once they pub­lished it, dozens of in­quiries came flood­ing in. Cur­rent ap­pli­ca­tions of the Mi­cro Mote in­clude pres­sure sens­ing in­side the eye for glau­coma di­ag­no­sis, cancer stud­ies, oil reser­voir mon­i­tor­ing, bio­chem­i­cal process mon­i­tor­ing, sur­veil­lance – both au­dio and vis­ual – and re­search­ing the be­hav­iour of snails.

While there’s lit­tle doubt that the Michi­gan team’s lat­est de­vice is re­mark­able, doubt has been cast on the team’s claim to tini­est­com­puter fame, as some are ques­tion­ing whether these de­vices – IBM’S in­cluded – can le­git­i­mately be called com­put­ers. The rea­son be­ing, if you un­plug a desk­top or lap­top com­puter, its pro­grams and data are still there when it re­boots once the power re­turns, whereas the mi­cro-de­vices lose all prior pro­gram­ming and data if they lose power. In­deed, Blaauw has asked this very same thing. “We are not sure if they should be called com­put­ers or not. It’s more of a mat­ter of opin­ion whether they have the min­i­mum func­tion­al­ity re­quired.”

As time marches on and tech gets ever more ex­tra­or­di­nary, sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers will likely come up with plen­ti­ful uses for this minute com­puter – and pos­si­bly even a smaller com­peti­tor.

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