How Flexible Chips Could Change Computing

Cheap enough to go everywhere

Key Takeaways

  • A new type of flexible microchip could be cheap enough to transform everyday items. 
  • Arm’s new chip, PlasticArm, could be placed on milk bottles to ensure the contents aren’t spoiled. 
  • Future generations of smaller, faster chips even could power artificial intelligence that works without an internet connection.
A scientist examining a computer chip in a laboratory setting.

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Microchips might soon be so cheap and flexible that they could be printed onto milk bottles. 

Chip manufacturer Arm has unveiled a new prototype plastic-based microchip. Arm says this will create a new "internet of everything," with chips integrated into many kinds of objects. It’s the latest in a series of recent advances in chip technology that could transform personal electronics. 

"Many of today's wearables and implantables face severe battery life and size issues that prevent breakthroughs in applications such as AR glasses, AR contacts, and neural-computer interfaces," Wood Chiang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Brigham Young University who studies chip design, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"For example, making a Zoom call on your smart glasses or having GPS maps appear overlayed on top of your vision."

Cheaper Chips

Arm’s new chip, PlasticArm, is made of "metal-oxide thin-film transistor technology on a flexible substrate," instead of the silicon used in traditional processors. The chip is low-powered, but it’s inexpensive enough to go where others can’t. 

"The potential for this technology is beyond significant," Arm said in a news release. "PlasticArm is bringing the possibility of seamlessly embedding billions of extremely low-cost, ultra-thin, conformable microprocessors into everyday objects–a significant leap forward in realizing the Internet of Things."

Arm and flexible electronics developer PragmatIC said PlasticArm is "an ultra-minimalist Cortex-M0-based SoC, with just 128 bytes of RAM and 456 bytes of ROM," which means it's much less powerful than silicon-based chips. However, it’s "12 times more complex than the previous state-of-the-art flexible electronics." The chip could be placed on milk bottles, for example, to make sure the contents aren’t spoiled. 

But not all observers agree that flexible chips will make it to market. The Arm chips are still in the research phase, and the company hasn’t said when they could go into production.

"People have been investigating flexible electronics for decades with few actual products other than foldable phones (even that is a niche product)," Chiang said. "As CMOS circuits get smaller and better, it's not clear if flexible electronics will find good applications to take off."

This means better interfaces in vehicles, more depth using smart home software, and better visuals for movies or games.

ARM isn't the only manufacturer working to make less expensive chips. South Korea’s Samsung and Taiwan’s TSMC plan to introduce the first 3-nanometer chips next year. Both companies last year introduced 5-nanometer chips, which are used in some recently launched consumer devices. 

"Three-nanometer chips increase transistor density by about a third compared to five-nanometer chips," Nir Kshetri, a professor who studies chip manufacturing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Higher transistor density means smaller devices for a given level of performance, less costly, and more powerful."

Personal Tech Will Benefit From New Chips

New chips like the 3-millimeter designs from Samsung will make personal technology faster and energy-efficient, Mark Granahan, the CEO of chip design company iDEAL Semiconductor told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"It will help bring larger computing power to devices, which can take shape in all forms from making calculations to showing more brilliant visuals to support VR headsets," he said.

"It’s the real engine of the machine, so an upgrade here means an upgrade everywhere. This spans more than simply phones or personal devices—this means better interfaces in vehicles, more depth using smart home software, and better visuals for movies or games."

Integrated circuit, semi conductor

Yellow Dog Productions / Getty Images

Chiang said he doesn't think innovations in chips will slow down.

"Microchip technology continues to get smaller and better each year despite naysayers for the last 30 years," he added. "We have moved from building transistors on a 2D plane to a 2.5D structure in today's latest processes. It is a matter of time before we figure out how to build 3D transistors. I don't see Moore's Law running out of steam anytime soon."

Future generations of smaller, faster chips could even power artificial intelligence that works without an internet connection, Chiang said. 

"AI will write novels, create music, and draw animation films for people," he added. "There might even be AI stars and TV personalities. The line between virtual and reality will blur to a point where people can't tell if they are talking to or watching an AI or a human."

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