In the early days of computing, fancy and powerful number crunching devices were incredibly large. Things have evolved since then, and we can now fit what are essentially PCs (smartphones) into our pockets, giving us access to much more powerful machinery in a portable form factor that would have been unheard of several decades ago. But why stop there? At the IBM Think 2018 conference, IBM unveiled the world's smallest computer, a blockchain system that is tinier than a grain of salt.
The minuscule PC was born out of IBM Research. Each year the division showcases some of the biggest breakthroughs coming out of the company's labs as part of its annual "5 in 5" technology predictions. These consist of five technologies that IBM believes will fundamentally reshape business and society in the next five years, hence the name. This year the company unveiled a computer so small that you need a microscope to get a good look at it.
What you see in the image at the top is a collection of 64 motherboards with two incredibly small computers sitting on the top left. Each of the computers measures just 1mm x 1mm. The processor that sits inside each of the PCs has several hundred thousand transistors and, according to Mashable, has the computing power of a x86 chip from 1990. Sure, that's relatively weak by today's standards, but keep in mind the size.
So what's the point? IBM sees its tiny PCs being used as a data source for blockchain applications. Beyond the 'get-rich-quick' (or slow) mentality of mining cryptocurrencies, the underlying blockchain technology is really what's useful.
"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. They’ll be used in tandem with blockchain’s distributed ledger technology to ensure an object’s authenticity from its point of origin to when it reaches the hands of the customer. These technologies pave the way for new solutions that tackle food safety, authenticity of manufactured components, genetically modified products, identification of counterfeit objects and provenance of luxury goods," IBM explains.
What's also interesting in the cost. According to IBM, these tiny PCs cost a mere 10 cents to produce. Despite the low cost, using blockchain technology, they are capable of monitor, analyzing, communication, and acting on data. They can do things like track shipments and verify that a product has been handled properly throughout its journey, reducing cases of fraud. It's a pretty remarkable thing.