First implantable mini computer to monitor progression of eye disease

Researchers developed the first implantable millimeter-scale computing system. First use is to monitor the progression of a blinding eye disease.

Gordon Bell of Microsoft Research once wrote in IEEE: "In 1951, a person could walk inside a computer and by 2010 a single computer (or “cluster’) with millions of processors has expanded to building size.  More importantly, computers are beginning to “walk” inside of us."

Scientists have created a tiny computer that can be implanted to monitor disease progression, and it's only the size of a pen tip.

That's right, a pen tip.

Researchers at the University of Michigan showed off a prototype of an implantable eye pressure monitor at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. The medical device will be available in a few years.

This new computer is quite robust. Scientists say it's equipped with an ultra low-power microprocessor, sensor, memory, battery, solar cell and radio with antenna.

When implanted, the mini computer could keep track of a blinding eye condition known as glaucoma. The antenna would send data to an external reader, the researchers say. It takes measurements every 15 minutes. It goes into sleep mode, so it's not that energy intensive. Plus, it can recharge with sunlight or indoor light. And once the antenna transmits data, an external system can store an entire week of information.

But what's really different with this mini computer is the antenna: It's integrated and it acts as its own reference.

Enter the millimeter-scale computing era. Our wireless sensor networks could be a lot more energy efficient if powered by mini computers like the one the Michigan scientists are proposing.

Michigan's professor David Blaauw said in a statement:

When you get smaller than hand-held devices, you turn to these monitoring devices. The next big challenge is to achieve millimeter-scale systems, which have a host of new applications for monitoring our bodies, our environment and our buildings. Because they're so small, you could manufacture hundreds of thousands on one wafer. There could be 10s to 100s of them per person and it's this per capita increase that fuels the semiconductor industry's growth.

In my lifetime, I've seen computers shrink. Computers used to take up entire rooms. Then the computers only took up space on the desktop. It was good when they became portable, and the processor could fit nicely on your lap. But now, you can hold your smartphone in your hand.

But computers can still get smaller than that.

No doubt, history will repeat itself. Computers will continue to shrink, as it follows Bell's Law. Every 10 years, computers will get smaller and cheaper.

The more robust we can make sensors, the more we will know about our bodies and our planet.

This implantable mini computer might be worth keeping an eye out for.

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