IBM threw down a challenge in March of this year when they built what they claimed was the world’s smallest computer. The IBM computer is smaller than a grain of rock salt, but computing engineers around the world decided they’d attempt to go smaller. The challenge also didn’t sit well with a team at the University of Michigan who previously held the record for world’s smallest computer.
After months of development, the Michigan team announced they’ve bested their corporate challengers. The computing device they created measures only 0.3 mm on a side. A grain of rice dwarfs the technology.
During the development process, the University of Michigan researchers had to redefine what qualifies as a computer — especially in light of IBM’s claims. Earlier systems like the 2x2x4mm Michigan Micro Mote retain programming and data even when they’re not powered by external batteries. However, the system created by IBM does not keep programming and data whenever it’s removed from power.
“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. Blaauw led the development of the new system together with Dennis Sylvester, also a professor of ECE, and Jamie Phillips, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of ECE.
However, if IBM wanted to qualify its device as a computer, the Michigan team would play by those standards. The Michigan engineers got to work on developing the computer roughly one-tenth the size of IBM’s. The computing device needed more than just RAM and photovoltaics. It also needed a processor, wireless transmitters, and receivers. The device was too small for a conventional antenna, however, so the team developed a way for it to receive and transmit data with visible light. The base gives light for both power and programming while also taking in the data.