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Boffins make a computer that’s dwarfed by a grain of rice

SIZE ABSOLUTELY DOES MATTER when it comes to making the world’s smallest computer, which boffins at the University of Michigan have done.

At a mere 0.3mm, the tiny device makes a grain of rice look like a giant in comparison. But note the use of the term ‘device’; that’s because the tiny size of the machine raises questions as to what can be called a computer when things get stupidly small.

IBM recently made a song and dance about having the world’s smallest computer that measures 1mm x 1mm, enough to lose itself in a good sized pinch of salt.

But the clever folks at the University of Michigan have been arching their eyebrows in a questioning fashion, noting that when such a device is turned off it loses all its data and programming, unlike a true computer, meaning it’s questionable whether such a small machine can indeed be called a computer.

“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,” said David Blaauw, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who led the development of the new system alongside a couple of other academics.

As such, the braniacs aren’t calling their tiny device a computer, rather it’s a new computing microdevice.

Whatever its called, the machine is pretty impressive given it manages to fit in RAM and photovoltaics, the latter being needed to provide power to the device given fitting an electrical or battery power supply would be tricky at this scale. The photovoltaics also allow the device to send and receive data using light rather than use radio signals as it’s too small to fit a conventional antenna to.

This meant the packaging for the device had to be transparent but that in turn meant light interference from a base station to which the device sends data, meaning exchanging diodes used as tiny solar cell had to be switched for switched capacitors.

“We basically had to invent new ways of approaching circuit design that would be equally low power but could also tolerate light,” Blaauw explained.

The end result was a device that was used as a precision temperature sensor with the potential to measure the temperature inside tumours and aid in oncology work.

“Since the temperature sensor is small and biocompatible, we can implant it into a mouse and cancer cells grow around it,” said Gary Luker, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering. “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.”

But the tiny device has scope for use in other situations such as monitoring oil reservoirs or pressure inside of eyes for glaucoma diagnosis. Or even the study of tiny snails, because who doesn’t want to stick a tiny device into a mollusc?

While the boffins beaver away at figuring out what to next to do with the device, we guess it’s up to IBM and other computer makers to come up with the next world’s smallest computer that’s maybe not a computer. µ

Source : Inquirer

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