In 2015, the Michigan Micro Mote (M3) took its place among other revolutionary computing accomplishments at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. And transporting it across the country from Ann Arbor was easy: Nearly 150 of these computers fit inside a thimble.
But that thimble also contains multitudes, including years of research into tiny computer technology – or microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), sometimes called “smart dust”– and the M3 is the smallest smart dust ever. It is the first complete operational computer system – meaning one that has an input of data, the ability to process and make decisions about it and, ultimately, to output it – that’s this ridiculously small.
The M3 was developed by Michigan faculty members David Blaauw, Dennis Sylvester, David Wentzloff and Prabal Dutta, along with several key graduate students over those years – some of whom have founded companies to exploit key aspects of the M3 technology.
On the way to the M3, the Michigan researchers achieved a record-breaking low power microprocessor, incorporated interchangeable miniature sensing devices, and even developed an imager – and they figured out how to power it all autonomously. Most recently, a new approach to antenna design means it can broadcast critical information nearly 20 inches – far enough to reach your smart phone and the world.
Really small computers that can go where none have gone before – such as inside the body, on the tallest bridges, or under the ground or at sea – are critical to delivering otherwise unobtainable information. These computing motes can operate independently, detecting pressure in the brain or working as integrated sensing networks, which places them at the heart of the Internet of Things.
Getting smaller, of course, has been the driving force since the inception of electronics technology. Smaller often means faster, and more efficient. But as the Computer History Museum notes, you must also be very careful when handling them:
Children have loved visiting the Computer History Museum and discovering just how small the world’s tiniest computer really is. And with their active imaginations, they may well be the ones to figure out how next to use them.
The infinitesimal possibilities seem infinite.