The Crazy-Tiny Next Generation of Computers

When Prabal Dutta accidentally drops a computer, nothing breaks. There’s no crash. The only sound you might hear is a prolonged groan. That’s because these computers are just one cubic millimeter in size, and once they hit the floor, they’re gone.

“We just lose them,” Dutta says. “It’s worse than jewelry.” To drive the point home, Dutta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, emails me a photo of 50 of these computers. They barely fill a thimble halfway to its brim.

What’s in the thimble is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research into microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) — the technology of very tiny computers. MEMS are also called “smart dust,” and Dutta’s dust is the smallest known to humankind. Dutta is part of the Michigan Micro Mote, or M3, project at the University of Michigan, and M3 is on the cusp of releasing the blueprints for the “motes,” as Dutta calls them. As soon as the motes get approved by the University’s licensing office — which will happen any day now, says Dutta — M3 will release the blueprints on their website, so that nimble-fingered researchers, hackers and Maker Faire enthusiasts alike might begin to build them. After years of trial and error, smart dust, long predicted by members of the scientific community, is finally here.

In order to fully test the motes’ real-world limits, the M3 team decided that they would define the mote’s overall architecture, but entrust the last bits of components (such as a camera and solar cell) to MEMS enthusiasts. “They can use it to go build crazy stuff,” Dutta says.

What kinds of stuff? There are the obvious military-minded uses such as surveillance, but these tiny motes are small enough to literally get inside your head and, say, check out a tumor before it grows too large for surgery, or maybe assess the level of brain trauma after a head injury. On a broader scale, one might deploy smart dust to fly into a sandstorm or wildfire and report back on conditions. Or scientists might use it to assess the level of toxicity deep in a coal mine — or on Mars. … (read more)