Micro computers have various benefits including their ability to be embedded into product packaging to monitor supply chains as well as their medical use whereby they can enter the human body and collect information regarding a patients health. As with all technology the downfalls revolve around who has access to it. If a miniature computer ends up in the hands of criminals and hackers, its microscopic nature could benefit the trade of illicit goods rather than prevent it. As technology continues to decrease in size, it becomes more challenging to monitor its use, as by its very nature it is easy to conceal. It is extremely important to understand the risks as well as the benefits of shrinking technology.
There is a competitive side to the development of microscopic computers as there is with any instance of ambitious companies fighting for the title of “the world’s greatest..”, “the world’s first..” and now “the world’s smallest..”. For example, in 2015 the Michigan Micro Mote was created by University of Michigan faculty members David Blaauw, Dennis Sylvester, David Wentzloff, Prabal Dutta and several tech-savvy graduate students working at their own start ups. The Michigan Micro Mote (also known as M3) measured 2mm across and contained a processor, system memory, solar cells to power the battery, temperature sensors, a base station, and wireless transmitters. Once the scientists at the University of Michigan heard that IBM had announced an even smaller device, their focus switched to reclaiming the title of “the world’s smallest computer”. They went on to release a new device a tenth of the size of IBM’s 1mm x 1mm computer.
Understandably, if someone came across this invention and had prior knowledge of IBM’s “smallest computer” they might assume that scientists behind M3 just wanted to overthrow IBM and reclaim the “smallest computer” crown with little regard for its actual use. But in fact, the minuscule size of the invention is not just an effort to reach a new record surpassing IBM. The small size aids its deployment in the medical field (being able to detect ailments in the human body) as well as its use in tracking the movement of merchandise in a supply chain to ensure the items are legitimate, safe and legal.
One of the challenges the team at the University of Michigan came up against in making a computer a mere tenth of the size of IBM’s was how it would run with little power when the system casing had to be translucent. The light from the base station and the device’s LED generate currents within the device’s microscopic circuits. Another challenge they faced was how to maintain the device’s accuracy while running on minimal power, akes many of the common electrical signals (such as charge) louder. According to David Blaauw (one of the M3’s creators), they had to invent a new approach to circuit design whereby the device would run on limited power as well as being able to withstand light.
The technology they have developed is incredibly versatile and is adaptable for various uses. Although, the team has focused on temperature measurements because of its ability to help understand and detect tumours. For example, research has suggested that tumours have higher temperatures than healthy tissue, and a device such as the M3 can help to confirm or disprove this notion as it is miniature enough to enter the human body. The scientists at the University of Michigan have already used the device on mice. Gary Luker, a professor at the University, said that “since the temperature sensor is small and biocompatible, we can implant it into a mouse and cancer cells grow around it”. This emphasises how life-changing and even life saving this technology could be as it has the properties to potentially recognise ill health in a patient.
Although, so far, the Michigan Micro Mote is the only ‘complete computer’ of such a small size (with IBM following closely behind), small scale tech devices are not especially unique items in the contemporary world. For example, in 2015, a Swedish company offered tiny chips to their employees to inject into their hands. Instead of scanning ID cards to access their workplace, workers can move their hands over scanners. The RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip is around the size of a grain of rice, and the chip also gives employees access to photocopiers. Understandably the technology had mixed reviews, but its deployment in the workplace shows how brave and innovative tech developers have become; showing a willingness to enhance everyday life with the addition of wearable technology.
With the production of microscopic technology comes the risk of human error and corruption. Unfortunately, such technology will inevitably entice hackers and criminals wishing to track objects or even the movements of people for felonious purposes – taking an innovative and positively transformative piece of tech and moulding it for illegal activity. As long as security remains of the utmost importance for creators and providers of such technology, there should be no issue, but as with all inventions, these devices carry risks, and users and developers of such products should be aware of these risks at all times. Although needing a license, background checks and training may seem excessive, the level of risk does not match the tiny size of the Michigan Micro Mote and similar items. Measures such as these may become necessary as miniature technology expands into widespread use.