Tiny Computers Getting Smarter


by Tim Moran

Big computing has been all in the news lately, what with IBM's Watson taking on the top contestants in Jeopardy!--and winning.

But what about small computing? Well, the University of Michigan reports that its Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has prototyped an implantable eye pressure monitor for glaucoma patients that is believed to contain the first complete millimeter-scale computing system. What's more, it contains a self-tuning compact radio that could help organize these tiny systems into networks that could one day help track pollution, perform surveillance, and make almost any object trackable.

The U-M researchers--Dennis Sylvester, David Blaauw, and David Wentzloff--explain that "nearly invisible millimeter-scale systems could enable ubiquitous computing." This is the future, they say, and it's the result of Bell's Law, a corollary to Moore's Law, which says there's a new class of smaller, cheaper computers about every decade.

"With each new class, the volume shrinks by two orders of magnitude and the number of systems per person increases." The law, they say, has held good from mainframes, personal computers, notebooks through the new millennium's smartphones--and now millimeter-scale.

The device is expected to be commercially available several years from now. But, according to Blaauw: "The next big challenge is to achieve millimeter-scale systems, which have a host of new applications for monitoring our bodies, our environment and our buildings. Because they're so small, you could manufacture hundreds of thousands on one wafer. There could be 10s to 100s of them per person. . . ."

So look out, Watson, one day a couple of hundred thousand of these guys might just beat you,, if not Jeopardy!, at least on Cash Cab.