Computer Science

The World's Smallest Computer Is the Size of a Grain of Salt

If there's one truism about computers, it's that they're getting smaller. While doomsayers might warn that our current tiny processors are about to hit the limits of Moore's Law — that is, we almost can't get any tinier — a new development says otherwise. March 19 marked the first day of IBM Think 2018, where the company unveiled a computer so small, you might need glasses to glimpse it.

Left: a grid of 64 motherboards. Two of the new computers are in the top-left corner. Right: A single computer on a motherboard in a pile of salt.

Blink and You'll Miss It

IBM is calling this the world's smallest computer, and despite its futuristic nature it only costs 10 cents to produce. The miniscule computer packs several hundred thousand transistors into a footprint smaller than a grain of salt, yet boasts the computing power of the x86 chip that ran desktop PCs throughout the 1980s and 90s, according to ZDNet. Sure, that's sluggish compared to your laptop or even your smartphone, but you're not exactly going to be playing first-person shooters on this miniscule motherboard. Instead, it's set to bring the digital security of the blockchain into the real world. Let us explain.

Supply Chained

According to IBM, fraud costs the global economy more than $600 billion a year. But because the supply chain is so complicated, products change hands again and again before they get to where they're going — and that makes it easy for shady actors to introduce counterfeit products at any point on the journey.

One way to ensure the security of a transaction, whether you're buying a product or signing a contract, is with blockchain. Most people have heard of blockchain because of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, which relies on the technology to keep its transactions secure. You can learn more about how blockchain works here, but here's a very high-level explanation: it's an open, distributed network of individual computers that each hold bundles of digital fingerprints known as "blocks," which are visible to everyone on the network but still kept safe using a kind of math called cryptography. Right now, it's used almost exclusively for online transactions — every transaction gets its own fingerprint — but if you could give real-life products these digital fingerprints you could give the supply chain the same kind of airtight security Bitcoin bros currently enjoy. In fact, IBM has already started to use it on food-supply chains — but this tiny computer could be the thing that takes their efforts mainstream.

The new computer isn't quite ready for primetime, but IBM is promising that the first models could be available in the next 18 months. When that day comes, be sure to wear your glasses.

Learn about the ever-shrinking world of computer chips and the man who made the industry's most lasting prediction in "Moore's Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley's Quiet Revolutionary" by Arnold Thackray and David Brock. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Blockchain for Supply Chain Transparency & Traceability

Written by Ashley Hamer March 19, 2018

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