Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice

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“Sabotage #4: Mixing Noodles with Rice”, Image by Stefan

Back in 1977, Steve Martin put out a live album of his stand-up comedy performances called Let’s Get Small. Included was one of his signature routines called Well, Excuse Me. It went on to sell more than a millions copies. Much of it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Now, 48 years later, when the Internet of Things (IoT) has becoming a burgeoning global phenomenon, some very imaginative people have taken this notion (in name only), and  in a way that could have never been foreseen in any manner back then.

Certainly no excuses needed here. Rather, let’s have a look at this exciting new development.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Professor David Blaauw, have recently fabricated a functional and autonomous computer measuring only 1 millimeter on each side. This device, dubbed the Michigan Micro Mote (M^3), was the subject of a most interesting article by Rex Sakamoto on CNET.com entitled This Working Computer is Smaller Than a Grain of Rice, posted on April 6, 2015. I will summarize it, add some links and annotations, and pose a few questions. (The CNET article also contains an embedded video of a very informative recent report about this project on CBS News.)

This team’s work has been ongoing for more than ten years. With regards to the IoT, they believe that all of devices connected to it will require more “intelligence” and networking capabilities integrated into them whereby the M^3 could be the means to accomplish this.

The M^3’s current capabilities are photography and as temperature and pressure sensors. The researchers are now exploring a range of potential applications “ranging from medical to industrial” including:

  • Medical: How it can be “injected into the body” to take such temperature and pressure readings, as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Energy: Assessing whether an existing oil well still contains any extractable reserves.
  • Consumer Goods: Attaching M^3s to everyday items such as keys and wallets to insure they are never lost inside or outside of the home.
  • Other potential apps on the project’s website include a platform containing “low-resolution imager, signal processing and memory, temperature sensor, on-board CMOS timer, wireless communication, battery, and solar energy harvesting that are all packaged in a 1mm3 volume through low-cost die stacking and encapsulation.”

In order to program and power up the M^3, the researchers created a means to accomplish this by using “strobing light at high frequency”. In turn, the M^3’s output is transmitted to an external computer by “conventional radio frequencies”.

The team’s current efforts involve reducing the size of the M^3 even further to a point where it may become the basis for a form of “smart dust“.

Just a few days ago in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Material Science about metamaterials that can bend sound, light, radar and seismic waves, I speculated about some other potential applications for this emerging technology. With the M^3 so similar insofar as its originality and  potential to generate a myriad of applications not even considered yet,  my questions include:

  • Are there apps where the M^3 and metamaterials can be combined? What about in optical networks where metamaterials are using in the production of fiber cables where the M^3s could be used as sensors?
  • Would the M^3 make a via sensor for transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails and so on), as well as the bodies, engines and electronics in cars, planes and trains? How about embedding them into buildings for additional safety technologies?
  • What safety and privacy protocols and policies will need to be developed and by whom? How can they be enforced?

Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015

"DSCOVR Liftoff", Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

“DSCOVR Liftoff”, Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Towards the end of each year, much of the tech and business media traditionally make predictions about which technologies to watch during the following year. These prognostications are always of interest to, among others, people working in technology, the sciences, startups, academia and financial services. However, many of these predictions often do not live up to their hype or expectations.

Nonetheless, on November 20, 2014, correspondent Sam Grobart hosted a 45-minute presentation on Bloomberg Television entitled The Year Ahead: Innovation about ten technologies ranging from food to virtual reality that conveyed a remarkable sense of excitement and anticipation from start to finish. Any of these ten could reasonably be expected to find their markets and break out, but only time will tell. All of them are offering highly imaginative and innovative systems that could potentially and significantly impact domestic and global populations and markets.

Be assured that this is not a puff piece on these innovators and their work. Rather, this is a declaration of the work being done by very smart and resourceful people striving to make a difference in their fields. I highly recommend viewing this in its entirety.

This intriguing peek over the horizon featured the following:

  • Soft Robotics Inc. is working on the design and materials for robots with soft exoskeletons for applications in rehabilitative medicine, space exploration and athletic clothing.
  • Thalmic Labs has created an input device called the Myo Armband for computers and other electronics that consists of a band of sensors worn on the user’s forearm that interprets different physical movements as gestural input.
  • Hyve 3D – As discussed in a Subway Fold post on August 28, 2014 entitled Hyve-3D: A New 3D Immersive and Collaborative Design System is a very agile and extensible virtual development platform. This program takes you inside of it with its director, Tomas Dorta, at the University of Montreal and further reports on how Hollywood is now using the system to create virtual storyboards and other projects are in for building construction.
  • AeroFarms is fabricating and implementing “vertical farms” using aeroponics to grow crops, faster and more energy efficiently than under traditional farming, in a system using mists of water rather than planting in soil.
  • Beyond Meat is creating imitation chicken and beef products using plant components to achieve comparable tastes and food textures.
  • Akahn Technologies is growing industrial diamonds and integrating them into computer chips in place of heat sinks thus significantly reducing heat generation and enabling much slimmer computing devices to be manufactured.
  • Suneris is working on a product called “Vetigel” that fully stops major bleeding from wounds and burns within a matter of seconds.
  • The Zephyr from Airbus a solar powered, geostationary hybrid drone and satellite being built and tested to provide broadband network access to underserved territories.
  • Groundwater Replenishment System by the Orange County Water System is purifying waste water and groundwater back into drinkable water in drought-stricken Southern California.
  • Jaunt is developing an entirely new platform and 360 degree camera to create fully immersive virtual reality movies to be viewed using the versatile new Oculus Rift headset.*

Mr. Grobart’s reporting and the production values on this show are absolutely top flight in every journalistic respect. None of the ten endeavors are over- or undersold, but rather, objectively formatted and presented. The production is internally consistent in its narratives about each one and sequenced in a logical order. Thus, the micro view of each startup or project and the macro view of these innovators innovating is done in a highly professional and accessible manner. IMHO, these are all great stories well told.**

In a world filled with so much troubling news each day, it was incredibly refreshing and inspiring to watch this program and try to assess the potential these undertakings.

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*  See the cover story from the May 2014 issue of WIRED entitled The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality by Peter Rubin for comprehensive coverage of this technology and company.

**  X-ref to this November 6, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

IBM’s New TrueNorth Chip Mimics Brain Functions

To borrow a title made famous by Monty Python to characterize a development announced in the August 7, 2014 edition of the New York Times, now for something completely different in, well, computing architecture, IBM has created a chip called TrueNorth that mimics some of the operations of the human brain. As covered in this report entitled IBM Develops a New Chip That Functions Like a Brain, this chip uses far less power than other chips built on more traditional technologies and, it is hoped, may enable the faster and more extensible processing and interpretation of certain classes of data.  This article contains a link to the August 8, 2014 issue of Science by the IBM researchers with the technical details of their accomplishments. In addition to reading the full details of this fascinating article, I also suggest a click-through to another article on IBM Research’s own website to an article entitled Introducing a Brain-inspired Computer.

This is one of those remarkable developments where the inspiration for a unique technological advancement has been derived from human biology. The field of biomimetics has likewise produced innovative systems, designs and materials in many diverse fields such as, among others, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals and robotics.

As reported in the NYTimes story, the TrueNorth chip, this is being termed a “neuromorphic” chip because it imitates the functions of the brain’s neurons to better recognize patterns such as changes to the intensity and color of light or particular physical movements made by a person. The May/June 2014 edition of MIT’s Technology Review in its annual report on the Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies carried a highly informative article entitled Neuromorphic Chips as among one of 2014’s such areas.

The report further states that the chip’s “neurons” all run in parallel and can compute 46 millions operations per second. While not as fast as many of today’s other chips, by its very nature it is better able to handle certain types of operations that faster chips can process. Moreover, scientists believe that the speed of these chips will continue to scale up.

I am certain that as with many other strikingly original advances such as this, other applications will continue to emerge in the future for these chips that no has currently anticipated. I am greatly looking forward to seeing what they are and where they occur.