The computer that is one cubic millimetre.

Smartphones have shown that complex computing can be done on a very small scale but the next generation of computing will see devices shrinking even more dramatically. What is known as smart dust in computing parlance, these nano computers will be used to monitor and control infrastructure such as bridges and buildings and could even be implanted into the human body to monitor biological functions (not too dissimilar from the concept of nanorobots as discussed by Sharp Laboratories’ of Europe scientists).

At Michigan University they have recently created prototypes of these miniature computers which they are calling Michigan Micro Motes. Professor Prabal Dutta tells Humans Invent, “We take things that are on traditional computers like the processor, the ability to store data, the ability to communicate and the ability to sense the environment and you really just miniaturise them.”

One cubic millimetre

Interestingly, when it comes to creating such minuscule computers, which are only one cubic millimetre in size, the main barrier is not making the functioning parts tiny but creating a power source that is the real issue.

You can’t plug these things in or recharge them because they are so small

Dutta says, “If you look at a laptop or mobile phone, the battery dominates the volume of the device so we’ve had to spend a lot of effort on figuring out how to reduce the power needed for all the parts. You can’t plug these things in or recharge them because they are so small.”

The way they’ve got round this problem is to make these microcomputers harvest the energy from the environment around them, for example, solar energy if the mote is near a light source.

The micro motes will be able to communicate through inbuilt radios as well as optical receivers. Dutta says, “By modulating LED lighting we can communicate with these devices optically.”


Close-up of the Michigan Micro Mote.

Harvesting the environment

As well as using these computers in buildings to collect temperature and humidity data or for occupancy sensing for example there are also plans afoot to insert them into human beings.

Dutta says they could be used for, ‘monitoring human pressure, such as intraocular pressure which is the pressure of your eye, or intracranial pressure sensing for detecting when a concussion might become dangerous.”

He adds, however, “These are very preliminary, I don’t think we’ve actually implanted anything in any human to date but there have been a couple of laboratory experiments with implanting in rats and understanding what happens when you do that.”

Roughly every decade we end up with a new computing class

But these kind of computers could be used for anything and everything. Dutta says, “We are making the basic pieces of these systems available so other people can go and build applications on their own, things that we can’t even begin to imagine.”

The future

Dutta believes these nano computers could become mainstream in as little as five years time. He says, “If you look at the history of computing, roughly every decade we end up with a new computing class. We went from mainframe to the minis to workstations to PCs to laptops to mobile phones and the next generation or two is really going to be a computer that is far more pervasive than cell phones even.

What we are building today are the fundamental pieces to this next evolution in computing and we think they are going to far out number our cell phones. These computers are going to be the things that monitor the world for us and give us information.”

The question is: where do we go after this? Will computers keep shrinking and if so, when will they stop? Will the day come when we have created sub-atomic computers?

Image credit: MicroMote-3,-4 Constantine Pankin (shutterstock)

For related articles on Humans Invent please read:

The World in 2112 Workshop: Robotics

The future is bendy: Designing flexible displays

RaspLogic: Engineering your home automation system

Steve Furber: Building a computer to mimic the brain

The Antikythera mechanism: Inside the world’s first computer

Inside The Bunker: Europe’s most secure data centre

Raspberry Pi brings IT learning to the masses

Phil Edmonds: I’ve been coding since I was 12

The 3D journey: Inventing a real-life holodeck

Jon Nonweiler: Inventing an end to the daily commute

The 24/7 inventor: Building a robot lawnmower at home

Pocket diagnosis: The express blood test tech of the future

The End
  • Chris Fischer

    Great article, except there is no such thing as Michigan University. Do you mean the University of Michigan?

  • Alex

    great post.

  • Alex

    good post

  • AlexA

    good post!

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