It’s one of the cornerstones of the coming technological revolution: machinery that can assemble, upgrade, and/or fix itself without the need for regular maintenance. Such devices would forever put an end to the hassles of repairing computers, replacing components, or having to buy new machines when something vital broke down. And thanks to researchers at Caltech, we now have a microchip that accomplish one of these feats: namely, fix itself.
The chip is the work of Ali Hajimiri and a group of Caltech researchers who have managed to create an integrated circuit that, after taking severe damage, can reconfigure itself in such a way where it can still remain functional. This is made possible thanks to a secondary processor that jumps into action when parts of the chip fail or become compromised. The chip is also able to tweak itself on the fly, and can be programmed to focus more on saving energy or performance speed.
In addition, the chip contains 100,000 transistors, as well as various sensors that give it the ability to monitor the unit’s overall health. Overall, the microchip is comparable to a power amplifier as well as a microprocessor, the kind of circuit that processes signal transmissions, such as those found in mobile phones, as well as carrying out complex functions. This combined nature is what gives it this self-monitoring ability and ensures that it can keep working where other chips would simply stop.
To test the self-healing, self-monitoring attributes of their design, Hajimiri and his team blasted the chip with a laser, effectively destroying half its transistors. It only took the microchip a handful of milliseconds to deal with the loss and move on, which is an impressive feat by any standard. On top of that, the team found that a chip that wasn’t blasted by lasers was able to increase its efficiency by reducing its power consumption by half.
Granted, the chip can only fix itself if the secondary processor and at least some of the parts remain intact, but the abilities to self-monitor and tweak itself are still of monumental importance. Not only can the chip monitor itself in order to provide the best possible performance, it can also ensure that it will continue to provide a proper output of data if some of the parts do break down.
Looking ahead, Hajimiri has indicated that the technology behind this self-healing circuit can be applied to any other kind of circuit. This is especially good news for people with portable computers, laptops and other devices who have watched them break down because of a hard bump. Not only would this save consumers a significant amount of money on repairs, replacement, and data recovery, it is pointing the way towards a future where embedded repair systems are the norm.
And who knows? Someday, when nanomachines and self-assembling structures are the norm, we can look forward to devices that can be totally smashed, crushed and shattered, but will still manage to come back together and keep working. Hmm, all this talk of secondary circuits and self-repairing robots. I can’t help but get the feeling we’ve seen this somewhere before…