IBM just unveiled the ‘world’s smallest computer’


IBM is kicking off its IBM Think 2018 conference this week with “5 in 5,” a collection of IBM Research inventions and technologies “that could change our lives in the next five years.” If you want to hear a large corporation tell you about AI, blockchain, and quantum computing all in the same breath, IBM Think sounds like the place to be.

It’s a little hard to tease out the technology from the buzzwords, but, happily, Mashable spotted this gem: IBM is building the world’s smallest computer. Details are still thin — perhaps we’ll learn more this week — but there’s enough info to get excited about.

The computer is 1mm x 1mm, smaller than a grain of fancy salt, and apparently costs less than ten cents to manufacture. To be clear, the picture above is a set of 64 motherboards, each of which hold two of this tiny computer. Here’s an actual photo of a solo computer on a pile of salt for scale:


In comparison, the last “world’s smallest computer” to make a big splash was the Michigan Micro Mote in 2015, which measured a whopping 2mm across.

Feature-wise, the computer has a processor with “several hundred thousand” transistors, SRAM memory, a photo-voltaic cell for power, and a communications unit that uses an LED and a photo-detector to talk with the outside world.

IBM claims the computer has the power of an x86 chip from 1990. That puts it exactly on the edge of enough power to run the original Doom (the original README.TXT for Doom says a 386 processor and 4MB of RAM is the minimum). Hopefully IBM will be more forthcoming with benchmarks in the next five years, and I’m looking forward to repurposing this chip’s LED as a one pixel display.


IBM’s actual application for this chip seems mostly centered on supply chain management and conterfiet protection — enter the “blockchain” buzz. The chip is just one of many “crypto-anchors” IBM is developing for this purpose.

While we wait for more details on IBM’s plans for this tiniest of computers (or, like, a name to call it by), here’s some soothing close-up footage of what transistors look like:


That’s pretty cool. It will be fun to see how/if it gets deployed

I can see these being inside of clothing. We would never notice their deployment and manufacturers could track where their clothes are going. Like IBM already said, it would be used for counterfeit…. Translate: Clothing.

That would require someone scans/writes to it with the correct equipment ? Standards and following regulations by all parties in the supply chain is the hard part, because I can think of far easier way to prove authenticity of a particular clothing article. A simple unique serial to be scanned on counter or via phone and a blockchain or centralised database registry that confirms said article to be authentic and logs it as ‘purchased / used’ upon scanning, solves the problem in part.

But can it run Crysis Doom? (Would be interesting to see if/when someone actually manages to do so)

Ouff, moisturize.

This is pretty interesting for sure, but just to note: The original Doom required a video card, not just a CPU and some memory.

and a dos extender for flat memory space

The original DOOM didn’t require a 3D accelerated video card as we know them now, though, just the regular 2D everyone had, since Doom was software-rendered 2.5D. Even up until Quake1 or Quake2 you could just barely get away without hardware 3D acceleration (and I did), but I eventually broke down and bought a Diamond Stealth RIVA TNT (instead of the gold standard Voodoo). Good times.

IIRC, the Riva TNT was released a bit after the Voodoo, though. Its main competitor at 3dfx would have been the Banshee, a 2D-3D chipset based on the Voodoo2 for 3D. The real choice when the Voodoo was released was, well, there was no real choice, because the Matrox Mystique was’n’t going to cut the mustard…

no problem you can slap it onto a videocard.

How does the processing power of this compare with a Raspberry Pi Zero W?

Direct comparisons between computers that have really different architectures are hard, and we don’t have a lot of details, but the Zero W is a lot more powerful.

A 1990 PC might be a 386 or 486 (the 486 was out, but not widely used – if you went to a store to buy a PC to take home in 1990, it was likely a 386), which was a single-core processor running at somewhere between 16-33MHz. So let’s say 25MHz as a reference point. The 386 didn’t have an integrated floating-point coprocessor to do math, but the 486 did – that’d make a big performance difference, but let’s just assume that IBM’s processor is roughly as powerful as a 486 at 25MHz. That processor would have about 15 million integer operations per second (MIPS).

The Pi Zero W has a single-core CPU running at 1GHz. The architectures are VERY different, and comparing between systems isn’t perfect, but when Tech Republic looked at the Zero W, they got it to perform at 871 MIPS – 58 times faster than the PC from 1990.

If you were using floating point calculations (MFLOPS), which is more common today, the Zero W would probably win by an even greater margin. Floating point calculations weren’t considered that important in 1990, and the 486 was the first x86 CPU to have a built-in processor to handle them.

On top of that, the Zero W has a GPU, which, although a specialized processor, is also many times as powerful as the 1990 PC.

With such a small device, I suspect the issue isn’t processing power anymore, but the speed and range of IO. It would have to be wireless (they use LEDs and photodetectors for this one but that would need line-of-sight), and the small size limits it to high-frequency signals that have low range. If these problems could be solved, however, this could lead to a breadth of IoT / RFID applications that simply aren’t economical or feasible today.

I would think getting enough power from the tiny photovoltaic cell would be a challenge too

I hope it will be compatible with Re Check as I am quite pleased with this software. It will be major upgrade with the miniature chip!

What’s a computer?

We’ll tell you about it in the car.

New from IBM: The NanoMini Micro!

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