These Tiny Chiplets Could Coat Nearly Anything in Digital Intelligence

Imagine if silicon chips were smaller than a grain of sand and could be made using a laser printer: everything under the sun could be made unobtrusively smart. But that's not science fiction, and you don't have to imagine too hard—because researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center have already done it.

The New York Times reports on a new breed of tiny pieces of silicon called chiplets. From the Times:

With financing from the National Science Foundation and from Darpa, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, [PARC researchers] have designed a laser-printer-like machine that will precisely place tens or even hundreds of thousands of chiplets, each no larger than a grain of sand, on a surface in exactly the right location and in the right orientation.

The chiplets can be both microprocessors and computer memory as well as the other circuits needed to create complete computers. They can also be analog devices known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, that perform tasks like sensing heat, pressure or motion.

Which all sounds great, but what exactly will they be used for? Well, brace yourself, because the researchers envisage being able to deposit the tiny chips within objects that are 3D-printed: essentially, they want to create everyday objects that have computing punch embedded in them from the get-go. The possibilities that offers up are so insanely wide and varied that it almost defies belief, but perhaps most excitingly it opens up the possibility of smearing technology—say, memory or storage—across the whole of a physical object, as opposed to in one small concentrated lump.

But let's not get carried away: the researchers openly admit that they're years away from simultaneously placing these kinds of chips consistently and accurately, so a world of smart 3D printed objects is still some way off. But at least we know it's possible. [New York Times]

Image by Amy Sullivan/PARC