Tech UPTechnologyMicrocomputers, the smallest yet

Microcomputers, the smallest yet

Building a personal robot for less than a hundred euros is no longer science fiction. And all this thanks to miniaturization and the emergence of low-cost microcomputers, such as the Raspberry Pi. These small board computers fit in the palm of your hand and are worth around 20 euros. They are used for a large number of projects, from making robots, video consoles or even for office automation tasks.

But if these machines may seem small, they are a long way from what has been achieved so far. The competition to make tiny computers reached an astonishing level in 2018, when engineers at the University of Michigan released a computer that measures just 0.3mm . That is, about fifteen times smaller than a grain of rice. Now, it is not a computer like the ones we are used to. For example, it has temporary RAM memory, but no data storage . This means that when you turn it off you lose all information. It also does not have a plug to charge, but works thanks to solar energy. It was necessary to miniaturize the RAM memory and the photovoltaic plate, as well as the processor, the wireless transmitters and receivers. In fact, because the computer was too small to have a working radio antenna, they developed a miniature system for receiving and transmitting data using bursts of light. And the technical challenge was tremendous to manufacture it on a minuscule scale.

Does all this have a use in the real world? For example, one of the functions that is being explored for this machine is to implant it inside tumors to measure their internal temperature, an interesting topic for oncology. They also want to put them inside the eye of patients at risk of glaucoma, to measure intraocular pressure constantly. Taking into account that this disease is one of the main causes of blindness in people over sixty years of age, it could represent a great advance for ophthalmology. And the list of applications for miniature computers continues to grow. For example, smart clothing is being talked about more and more. From sports shoes with a chip that gives athletes the information they need to know how to train better and avoid injuries, to bikinis that monitor prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays to warn when to get in the shade to avoid injuries. At this point, the obvious question is, will the computers of the future continue to get even smaller?

One of the reasons for wanting things to get smaller is that it costs less money to make them, at least from the point of view of the materials used. And when it comes to power, the smaller a component, the more it can fit in the same space. This is the thing about computer processors, which are, so to speak, the brains of computers. Continuing with this metaphor, transistors are the neurons that make them work. These components are made of semiconductor materials which emit responses based on the signals they receive. And precisely the miniaturization has a lot to do with these components.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of the world’s largest manufacturer of integrated circuits, made a prediction that has more or less come true to this day. He basically said that the number of transistors in a microprocessor would double every year, and thanks to the increase in these components, they would become smaller and more efficient. This prediction has more or less come to pass and is now known as Moore’s Law.

The first microprocessor in history was created in 1970, it was the Intel 4004 and it had 2300 transistors. The 2020 Intel Core i7 980x has 731 million transistors . That is, 300,000 times more quantity. This data means that possibly a couple of current processors have the same transistors that existed 40 years ago in all the computers on the planet. But some think this is about to end. In 2010, the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which are reports released by the leading experts in the semiconductor industry, launched the prediction that miniaturization would slow down from the year 2013. Even Gordon Moore himself announced the death of its law for the next decade. The reason seemed logical, if you increase the density of the transistors in a processor, the heat increases. And at that point, theoretically you can’t remove the heat rise fast enough to not damage the processor. But predictions are one thing and reality is another. Come 2022, is it true that processors are no longer getting smaller and more powerful?

Gemma Rius is a researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics, one of the three institutes that make up the CSIC’s National Center for Microelectronics, and has a lot to say about the miniaturization of processors. “It has been said for a long time that Moore’s law it’s about to end. They have been saying it for twenty years, but progress has continued because techniques have been improved. Now it continues in that line. For example, ultraviolet-based lithography is used at the edge, which allows the channels of transistors to be made smaller.” In other words, processor production techniques are changing , and what was not possible before is now possible. But is it always profitable to implement state-of-the-art technology to gain a few more nanometers? Rius explains that “sometimes making a technical advance can increase the final price too much. For example, processors have components in multiple layers, and these have to be perfectly aligned. The smaller you make them and the denser they are, the more layers build upon layers. But the smaller it is, the more difficult it is to align them, and the cost has to go up.” In short, even if it is possible to spend less money on materials by making the components smaller, it may happen that the price also rises due to the manufacturing technologies and then it is not profitable to manufacture them.

But then, leaving production costs aside, where is the real limit of miniaturization? Rius has it clear. «Thanks to the latest advances, it is estimated that in the next two or three years the size of the transistors will continue to be reduced, thus increasing the power of the processors. But no matter how much manufacturing techniques improve, at the physical level there is a limit, which is where the physical principles that make transistors work fail on a small scale . That is, when passing a size border, the components lose their function». And at that point, not all the money in the world can help reduce the size of current processors, because it no longer depends on technology, but on the laws of physics. However, the engineers are stubborn and continue their fight to delay the end of Moore’s Law for a few more years. Rius explains that “another strategy to continue miniaturizing before reaching the limit is the use of new materials. Silicon dioxide was initially used as a dielectric for transistors, but being too thin it tends to break. That’s where, for example, the use of hafnium oxide entered. This compound is a type of material that, although thin, admits very large electric fields. Another trend is the introduction of carbon nanotubes and graphene . And from there it has gone on to molybdenum disulfide and a series of materials that we would like to be able to implement, although the technology necessary to make it possible is beyond the typical techniques and therefore now it would involve new ways of doing things.”

Today’s processors are about to enter a period where they cannot be downsized unless totally different technologies are designed. And one of the candidates on the horizon to revolutionize the future is quantum computing . This is a new way of doing things that is based on the use of qubits instead of the famous bits. Simplifying it a lot, the information in the bits is managed and stored in the form of ones and zeros, but the qubits can be ones and zeros at the same time. All this is based on the quantum properties of matter at minuscule scales, and although it may seem silly, this change in the concept allows information to be processed much faster. In addition, this technological change also implies a revolution in computer manufacturing techniques.

In November 2021, the manufacturer IBM introduced the Quantum System Two, a quantum computer that is designed to work with 433-qubit and 1121-qubit quantum processors. The catch is that those processors don’t exist yet, but the company says it will have them ready before 2024. How powerful would those processors be compared to current ones? If we take into account that a 50-qubit processor can theoretically outperform many supercomputers in solving some problems, we would be talking about hundreds of thousands of times more power. But not all are good news. One thing that is little known about the existing prototypes of quantum computers is that they are delicate to unsuspected limits . There are only about a hundred of these machines, and most have no practical use beyond science. Furthermore, they are tremendously expensive and require constant adjustments, complex configurations and very expensive installations where the temperature must be kept very low. All this may lead to the impossibility of applying this technology in home consumer computers, at least for the next few decades. Also, while today’s processor technology is refined, scientists and engineers fine-tuning quantum computing may run into technical problems that undermine its full potential. This would not be unusual, since it has already happened other times with technologies that seemed like they were going to change the world and came to nothing.

Nobody knows if the home computers of the future will be quantum or have some other technology capable of changing everything. What is clear is that the new materials will still extend the miniaturization of current processors for a few more years. But when the laws of physics stop allowing it, only time will tell if we are facing the end of Moore’s law.

It may also be that reaching the physical limits of miniaturization will lead scientists and engineers to look for other ways to make computers that will revolutionize the near future. As has happened so many times in history, perhaps the human being will find new doors at the limits of what is possible that will take him even further than he had ever imagined.

Go from a traditional CV to a digital and comprehensive one

The reality is that a person's CV on paper does not accurately reflect whether that person is suitable for a job, says Guillermo Elizondo.

Prime Day does not save Amazon and reports only 15% growth

The big tech companies are disappointing shareholders and Wall Street's response is to stop betting on them.

Goodbye to “irregular import” cell phones: ZTE will block them in Mexico

The company explained that it will send a message to the smartphones from which it "does not recognize" its import.

77% of the semiconductors that Intel manufactured in 2020 came from Asia

Upon the arrival of the new 13th Generation Intel Core in Mexico, the company spoke about its most relevant segments.

Japanese scientists create a 'washing machine for humans'

Can you imagine taking a relaxing bath in a machine that washes you with bubbles, plays relaxing music or videos?