quantum computer

Scientists develop squashable computer

Image credit: Dreamstime

A computer built using blocks of rubber with streaks of a rubber-silver compound could perform simple calculations when squashed.

Ryan Harne at Pennsylvania State University and his colleague have developed a type of soft cube-shaped computer that responds to being squeezed. 

The computers were built by combining rows of blocks of rubber that have lines of a silver-rubber compound running through them. Different configurations of the blocks act like different circuits, which when combined and connected to electricity allow the device to perform mathematical calculations.

The scientists hope these devices could be used for robots that respond to physical stimuli.

One version of the computer was set up to add together two numbers. A user would tell the computer which numbers to add by squishing the component blocks to the left or to the right, connecting some of the silver-rubber lines that didn’t touch before in such a way as to encode the numbers in binary.

The team connected a (non-squashable) digital display to the computer to show the result of the calculation.

Squishable computer model

Squishable computer / Charles El Helou

Image credit: Charles El Helou

The researchers also created squishy computers that could multiply two numbers or compare them to determine which is greater.

Although it is unlikely that these types of computers would replace traditional devices, or prove to be faster at doing calculations, Harne's team expects the technology to be used in robotics, where soft robots could make decisions based on what they touch in their environment. 

Ryan Hayward at the University of Colorado Boulder told the magazine New Scientist that he imagined the technology could be applied to integrate a computer into a building. In this scenario, the soft could “decide” to repair it after a crumbling piece of rock applies pressure to it.

In order to drive the technology forward, Harne and his colleagues are currently working on fine-tuning the computer’s “sense of touch” so that it can take inputs beyond the binary, for example by having it encode different squishing strengths into different values.

The details of this new type of computer were published in the journal Nature

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