Is This The World’s Smallest Computer?

How small could you make a computer? In a way, that’s a question that requires that a computer be defined, because you could measure the smallest computer simply in terms of the smallest area of silicon required to create a microprocessor. So perhaps it’s better to talk about a smallest working computer. Recent entries in the race for the smallest machine have defined a computer as a complete computer system which holds onto its program and data upon power-down, but this remains one that is hotly debated. You might for instance debate as to whether that definition would exclude machines such as the crop of 1980s home computers that didn’t store their programs and data, was your Sinclair Spectrum not a computer?

At the University of Michigan they have opted for the simpler definition with their latest entry in the race to be the tiniest. Their latest machine packs an ARM Cortex M0 into a 0.3mm cube, along with photoreceptors and LEDs for programming, data throughput, and power. It is designed to be a temperature sensor and logger for medical implantation, but it stands more as a demonstration of technological prowess than as a usable product.

Pictures of a tiny computer “dwarfed by a grain of rice” make for good mass media consumption but where’s the relevance for us? The interesting part comes from the tantalizing glimpse of its construction: this is a hybrid device upon which we can see the optoelectronic components have been wire-bonded. Unfortunately the paper, catchily titled “A 0.04mm3 16nW Wireless and Batteryless Sensor System with Integrated Cortex-M0+ Processor and Optical Communication for Cellular Temperature Measurement” does not appear to be free-to-view online, so we don’t have any more information. We wish that such feats were possible within our community, but suspect those days are still pretty far away.

31 thoughts on “Is This The World’s Smallest Computer?

    1. Not so, spatiotemporally speaking the bit width of a system vs the operations to reach a given step in a program are equal. So a serial computer takes more steps but uses less gates, in the end the total number of logic operations can be the same.

  1. a computer was a person, so the debate as to what a computer is, well pointless, there will always be some ass saying this or that. A computer that adds, wouldnt that not be a 2 input AND gate? it adds 2 bits in a way. or are we saying a computer is one that has instructions and data busses etc. well a 1bit bus is a computer, a simple Inverter can be a 1 bit, 1 bit bus, 1 bit data, ! machine.
    Click bait I say, well thats hack a day today…

    1. Something that takes input, perform logic, and outputs it would be the definition of a computer. So 2 switches, an AND gate and 2 LEDs would count enough for me. Of course this doesn’t really satisfy the definition for modern processor.

      1. Burkhard Kainka did a brilliant job with his TPS using just 3 switches and 4 LEDs “keyboard” and “screen” interface. described in English in https://www.amazon.co.uk/Learning-Programming-MyCo-easily-independent-ebook/dp/B00K6N87UG/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 . For fun we reprogrammed it in Forth – first for the MSP430G2553 but should run here similarly on ARM. Full control – or if you find it too cumbersome use the serial interface to your PC …

      2. Then a thermo sensitive paint is a computer. It changes state at certain temperature, has an output and is powered by what it measures. For data transmission it uses the sun, a pair of binoculars is your long distance data receiver.

      3. Would specifying that is’s a von Neumann architecture and can be programmed with or somehow run all the basic programs (except for memory constraints) like 99 bottles of beer

  2. “Pictures of a tiny computer “dwarfed by a grain of rice” make for good mass media consumption but where’s the relevance for us?”

    Love those pictures of an ant holding an IC.

    1. Ironically enough, included in both those pictures are zillions of biological cells with Turing-complete dna along with vastly capable input and output capabilities.

      You can’t beat nature.

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