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IBM Hardware Technology

IBM Unveils the 'World's Smallest Computer' ( 164

On the first day of IBM Think 2018, the company's flagship conference, IBM has unveiled what it claims is the world's smallest computer. It's smaller than a grain of salt and features the computer power of the x86 chip from 1990. Mashable first spotted this gem: The computer will cost less than ten cents to manufacture, and will also pack "several hundred thousand transistors," according to the company. These will allow it to "monitor, analyze, communicate, and even act on data." It works with blockchain. Specifically, this computer will be a data source for blockchain applications. It's intended to help track the shipment of goods and detect theft, fraud, and non-compliance. It can also do basic AI tasks, such as sorting the data it's given. According to IBM, this is only the beginning. "Within the next five years, cryptographic anchors -- such as ink dots or tiny computers smaller than a grain of salt -- will be embedded in everyday objects and devices," says IBM head of research Arvind Krishna. If he's correct, we'll see way more of these tiny systems in objects and devices in the years to come. It's not clear yet when this thing will be released -- IBM researchers are currently testing its first prototype.
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IBM Unveils the 'World's Smallest Computer'

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  • So they added some memory to an existing SoC?

    It can also do basic AI tasks, such as sorting the data it's given

    So it's a bunch of integer calculators. uint8 or uint16. Like the old FPU less machines of yester year.

    • How the hell is sorting even an "AI task"?
      Also, blockchain. Still? Seriously?
      • You guys keep moving the goalposts. As soon as we make a breakthrough in AI you come around and claim "that isn't AI". Next you are going to tell me that Siri isn't AI!
        • by Anonymous Coward

          As soon as we make a breakthrough in AI

          Yeah, as soon as that happens, let us know will you?

          • It happened already. Jobs for Chess and Go Masters disappeared overnight.
            • Touche; one of your better posts. Those are outlier, however; for machine logic to even begin to handle virtually any of the wide range of tasks that people perform constantly, there need to be massive revolutionary improvements in addition to the evolutionary changes we've seen so far. Our current 'computing models' aren't the way to go about implementing it, either; eventually, digital tools will probably enable far more efficient analog processor designs but until then, 'AI' will remain marketing horsesh
        • Of COURSE Siri isn't AI - I asked Alexa and she confirmed it!
        • by ls671 ( 1122017 )

          Siri isn't AI,

      • IBM (actually its corporate predecessors) probably called it that when they had Hollerith's machine sorting census punch cards. Must have seemed a marvel of technology then, and it was.
    • by Amouth ( 879122 )

      i was about to say, since when is "sorting" considered AI? if so let me update my resume to add 20+ years experience in "AI" - although give IBM's current approach to workforce........

      • by nashv ( 1479253 )

        Well, you could have AI based sorting. Like sorting first on some heuristic parameter that isn't actually the parameter to be eventually sorted by.

        • Good idea. Why sort of the parameter to be eventually sorted on, when you can sort by something completely different first?
          • by nashv ( 1479253 )

            Because the AI might be able to sort out certain things faster/to get clusters that may/may not be worth further sorting.

          • by Ed Avis ( 5917 )

            I can think of one example, block-sorting file compression as used by bzip2. If you are making a tarball of several files, it will presumably help to have files with similar content next to each other in the archive. (The block-sorting process would rearrange them later to some extent, but I believe that compression will be a bit better if they are already close, particularly if the input data is much bigger than the sorting window.)

            So you first sort by some measure that only approximates sorting by conte

        • by DeVilla ( 4563 )
          Or is "sorting" the word you give some C-level exec when trying to explain classification problems that don't depend on per-defined equivalence relationships? You can bet IBM is addressing the executives and not the technical people.
    • We should build a matching MIDI violin for it!

      Also, this [], if you want something really small and power-efficient.

    • So they added some memory to an existing SoC?

      "Why, the fax-machine is nothin' but a waffle-iron with a 'phone attached!"

  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 19, 2018 @06:55PM (#56287497)

    Blockchain and AI in one press release? I Best Buy some IBM stock.

  • Computers once filled an entire room. Now they are smaller than a grain of salt and more powerful. This means that all things are now possible. AI and trips to Mars. Quantum Computing. We just need to sit back and wait for it all to happen.
    • Said no one ever, except a certain straw stuffed fellow on his way to Oz.

      BTW, can you clarify which ones you think are impossible and which ones you think are possible without faster computers?

      • I think all things are possible. When I was growing up computers only had 64k of memory. Now they have GB and can fit on my wrist. Also, I can talk to my cellphone and it will tell me the weather in a woman's voice. Truly the future is NOW.
        • Right, but dropping your usual comedy A+ "lets go live on mars, just kidding, I fooled you, space nutters suck!" routine, what do you actually believe won't be helped by faster, smaller computers? Do you think true AI isn't possible, or just the time frame is wrong? (Which it always is) Just curious because you always pop up in these types of discussions, so you obviously care enough to post.

        • ... and it will tell me the weather in a woman's voice.

          With the same unfortunate lack of accuracy that the dumpy guy on the TV green screen gave us.

          Progress of a sort, I suppose.

    • This is nothing but an incremental change that does not have much of a bearing on AI, trips to Mars and quantum computing. I.e. there are obstacles in the way to those goals that this particular innovation will contribute very, very little, maybe even nothing, to overcome. Finally, the required breakthroughs will not happen if we just sit back and wait.
    • by mikael ( 484 )

      Imagine being able to covertly send a message to someone simply by writing some data into a pile of smart-dust and let it blow around by the global wind currents such as the jet stream. Might take a few days but that's quicker than most international postal services.

  • Buzzwords! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ( 771661 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @06:58PM (#56287521) Homepage Journal
    It's just an x86 microcontroller, but we'll throw in exciting buzzwords like AI, blockchain and cryptographic anchors to see if our stock goes up. Since when is "sorting" a "basic AI task"?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Since 2015 every computer algorithm was reclassified as AI. It was to cover up the fact that AI really hasn't made any progress in the last 40 years.
    • Re: Buzzwords! (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Such small ambitions and thought.

      Do you realize that even at a 1990s level of computational power and with the diminutive size of the full package that this is within the realm of being powered by your existing metabolism or a micro thermoelectric generator?

      Outside of the ultra sci-fi here. Imagine having direct and instant access to that kind of power, an extension of your mind. You'd not even know or feel these in your body.

      At some point. A tiny device like this will take over for damaged control systems

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Within the next five years, cryptographic anchors -- such as ink dots or tiny computers smaller than a grain of salt -- will be embedded in everyday objects and devices,"

    How can anyone read this without getting chills on their backs? The current situation is already a living nightmare of surveillance, but this... makes it impossible to keep existing in this world.

    • this... makes it impossible to keep existing in this world.

      Okay. Be sure to fill out your organ donor card before you stop existing in this world. That way you can help at least a few other people on your way out.

  • Privacy (Score:2, Insightful)

    Drop hundreds of billions of these from airplane over city, they will connect into encrypted wireless net, and you have "street view", but streaming live from everywhere, even from interiors of houses. If you think your privacy is violated by Facebook, hold on for this!
    • That would be awesome. We could call it "Smart Dust". Oh yeah, people were talking about that 20 years ago.
    • or maybe you would just make a mess. Great words from marketing but think about power supplies, IO and even a purpose otherwise they are pollution and nothing else.
    • by nasch ( 598556 )

      Unless there are cameras smaller than a grain of salt too, I'm not worried about that yet.

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:05PM (#56287575)

    1. Does it run Linux?

    2. Imagine a Beowulf cluster [] of these!
    Building a Beowulf Cluster in just 13 steps []

    How many cluster nodes per cm^3?

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:06PM (#56287579)

    1/2 tsp processors
    Add Linux distro to taste

  • Now the TSA will want to download data from my underwear along with my laptop and phone.
    • Your laptop and phone download data from your underwear?

      Man I'm out of date, I ain't got any of this good shit.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )

        Now the TSA will want to download data from my underwear along with my laptop and phone.

        Your laptop and phone download data from your underwear?

        No, his laptop and phone are in his underwear.

  • If I'm reading it right, it has some kind of LED attached and a micro solar panel. Like it can flash or something and run from power from the sun?

    I didn't get the impression you can plug anything in to it like a keyboard or even connect wirelessly, unless the article is missing something?

    • Well it needs to actually go on a "motherboard" first, which is about the size of a computer chip. No, I am not kidding. But trust me, it is really revolutionary. Or will be. At some point.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        I don't think it needs a motherboard. Look at the diagram:
        * PV power source, right there on the chip. So you don't need to plug into external power.
        * Static RAM data storage, right there on the chip. So you don't need a hard drive or anything like that.
        * LED communications and photo-detector, so you have input/output there.
        * x100,000 transistor processing unit. So there's your CPU.

        So you don't need a motherboard. It's entirely self-contained.

        • No. It needs a motherboard. It even shows it in the picture. As usual, this is BS. IBM was pushing "Smart Dust" 20 years ago with the same idea. No one wants it.
      • by viperidaenz ( 2515578 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @08:21PM (#56288145)

        The picture of a chip sitting on a finger in the article is 64 motherboards.
        Each motherboard is 1x1mm, which includes the CPU, SRAM, a PV cell for power and an LED/photodiode for I/O.
        Smaller than a relatively big grain of salt.

        I'm a little confused about the power of the thing though. They say it's similar performance to a CPU from 1990, which would be a 486.
        Except the 486 had over 1 million transistors, this has 100,000. That's more on par with a 286 from the early 80's

        • A fast 486 back in those days was 33 MHz; perhaps this runs at 330 MHz, and thus makes up for less transistor count with brute speed of execution?
          • It's still claimed to be an x86 processor though. The 100k transistor 286 had a much smaller instruction set and was only 16 bit
            The first proper "x86" was the 386, which came in at 275,000 transistors.

            It would have to be a *very* fast, very simple processor emulating x86 to be as fast as a 33MHz 486 and only require 100k transistors.
            and still run on half a bee's dick of power from a tiny PV panel.

            • It's still claimed to be an x86 processor though. The 100k transistor 286 had a much smaller instruction set and was only 16 bit The first proper "x86" was the 386, which came in at 275,000 transistors.

              Hmmm, x86 processors [] started with the 8086. It refers to a fundamental architecture and instruction set. I think your arbitrary declaration of 386 as the first "proper" x86 is misguided.

              • Even so, an x86 from 1990 was a 486 with a million transistors.

                An 8086 does about 0.1 mips per mhz, while a 486 does around 0.6. You'd need to run an 8086 at 300MHz is compete with a 50MHz 486. Probably much faster if you're using 32bit math. Even faster again to compete with the memory bandwidth difference.

                • The 386 was still in heavy use in 1990; the 486 had just been released. I would wager there were at least 10X the number of 386 PCs in use in 1990 as there were 486 PCs. The 386 had around 275K transistors (fits with this story), and would do about 11 MIPS at 33 MHz, so if you clock that up to 300 MHz you're around 100 MIPS. Not too shabby!
        • Except the 486 had over 1 million transistors, this has 100,000. That's more on par with a 286 from the early 80's

          Number of transistors is not the only factor determining the performance of a CPU. The switching speed of a transistor is a determining factor as well, and the process size that is fabbed nowadays is in the few tens of nm in size (10-16 nm), while it was about 500 nm in mid 1990s. This implies much lower capacitances and therefore, much higher switching speed.

    • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:51PM (#56287957)

      10Base5 Ethernet.

  • by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:29PM (#56287765)

    I know, I know, we don't read the article. And this one was crap too. Buzzword noise.

    But the block diagram was included, at least, and that's fascinating. Unlike Intel and their little chip, IBM has actually thought about the practicality of using the thing. It comes with an integrated solar cell and an integrated photo-diode communications array for both transmission and receipt of data. It also includes some SRAM. No mention of how many bytes, no mention of data throughput from the array, no mention of actual power consumption (and accompanying heat dissipation).

    All coverage appears to be essentially content-free crap designed to pump IBM's stock price.

    Maybe somebody can figure out what to do with it. It's going to be difficult since all I/O requires line of sight.

  • Big deal. Don't modern GPUs have thousands of processor cores? For that matter, aren't there microcontrollers that have been on the market for years now that are a complete SoC, with peripherals like ethernet, wifi, and bluetooth?
    • Did those microcontrollers do AI sorting and blockchain? Nope. Those things just come with a boring data sheet. This one does blockchain. Imagine what it can do!
      • What we have currently is incorrectly named "AI"; Neal Stephenson has a better term for it: "pseudo-intelligence".

        You forgot to end your comment with "</sarcasm>"
    • A modern GPU is the size of a small book and draws some 100W of power.

  • ..will it run Crysis?
  • by Eloking ( 877834 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:43PM (#56287895)

    The headline said "IBM has created a computer smaller than a grain of salt" but they compare it to Kosher Salt (Or another variety with the grain size if bigger).

    If you want to use an headline like this at least make sure it's smaller than the most popular type of salt. I mean, I've worked in a salt mine where I could find salt rock bigger than your house.

    • by waveclaw ( 43274 )

      A biohacker can't inject a rock bigger than my house into his junk and claim to be 'thinking with the other head' while doing his taxes on his dick-puter. Via the wikfi.

      Honestly, I expect facebook to come out with Jewelry that lets you rate the reputation of your meal with this. Then you'll finally be living in one of the Black Mirror episodes. The Nosedive episode, not the San Junipero episode (where the civilization ends by everyone become uploads living life in a retirement village that looks like A

    • Ya, exactly what I was thinking, varies with the size of salt...

      They specifically say grain, which is obviously untrue, or at least misleading as people think of a grain of table salt. That isn't even course sea salt, or even kosher salt. The picture looks like "Rock Salt" of a particularly lumpy variety. Most of the stuff I use on my driveway is finer than that stuff. I mean "Salt" can come in just about any dimensions you want, but I am not sure I would call it a "grain". We just bout a Salt Lamp for a fr

  • Useful for nanotech? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Trogre ( 513942 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @08:25PM (#56288171) Homepage

    Great, now can we attach batteries and motors to a small swarm of these and program them to harvest plaque from artery walls?


    • It's more likely a swarm of these will harvest your liver as they pass through your neighborhood, depositing it to the highest bidder. Make sure you bid high to get that sucker back! Or just bid on your neighbor's liver; he hasn't filtered cheap liquor each night like you have
  • It can also do basic AI tasks, such as sorting the data it's given.
    Ah ha ...

  • I'm having trouble understanding this analogy. Can someone explain the equivalent processing power in Librarians of Congress per Svedberg?

    • by ebvwfbw ( 864834 )

      They had machines running in terms of Megahertz instead of Giga hertz like today. I used to sell them. I used to run real Unix, Free BSD Unix on them and they had little memory, usually 4 Megabytes. I used to set up answering services, etc complete with a lan, database and such and it was all reasonable speed. With any luck they're talking about something like a 486-33. I used to sell those boards like hot cakes. Case at a time. Memory used to be a bitch because they were millipede like and I remember my fi

  • I can only imagine what billions of these things will so to the environment. We already have to worry about frigging sparkles killing wildlife and now we’ll have animals dying from investing these things...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    No 3.5 mm headphone jack? Then forget it.

  • So it's a microcontroller....?

Overload -- core meltdown sequence initiated.