Computers are shrinking rapidly. You can build a pretty capable little machine powered by a device like the Raspberry Pi, but that’s still huge compared with IBM’s latest machine. The company that started out selling massive mainframe computers has developed the world’s smallest computer. Each one is smaller than a grain of salt, but it packs more computing power than you’d expect.
The micro-computer is a complete system-on-a-chip (SoC) with a processor, memory, storage, and a communication module. The CPU contains several hundred thousand transistors, and IBM says it’s capable of performance on par with an x86 CPU from 1990. That’s not very fast compared with even the slowest modern computers, but it’s impressive for something you can’t see without a magnifying glass. It makes more sense when you look at the impressive developments in other SoC designs. The latest Qualcomm Snapdragon chips are about 1 square centimeter and have more processing power than supercomputers from the early 90s.
The chip is just a prototype right now, but IBM has big plans for this (literally) microscopic computer. It’s touting this as a significant advancement for blockchain technology, but not the same blockchain that’s used to track Bitcoin transactions. A blockchain is merely a distributed ledger that can be used for various purposes. IBM and other companies have been looking for ways to use blockchains without the cryptocurrency attached.
With a total footprint of 1mm x 1mm, the IBM micro-computer could be embedded in almost anything. In the image above, there are 64 of the tiny motherboards joined together. You can get a better idea of how small the computer is in the image below.
The company posits that manufacturers could use the chips and blockchain technology to verify the authenticity of goods. Even big retailers like Amazon are sometimes fooled by counterfeit items, but an embedded computer could help identify the real deal. These chips could also boost the internet of things (IoT) by making more devices “smart” without adding to their size or complexity.
Adding a computer to everything sounds expensive, but IBM doesn’t think that will be the case. A final version of the microscopic computer could cost as little as 10 cents per unit to manufacture. IBM expects to begin offering these “crypto-anchor” micro-computers to customers in the next 18 months or so. At that point, it will be up to industry to devise a blockchain system to authenticate goods. IBM believes this technology will become commonplace in the next five years.
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