June 25, 2022

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Where The Rubber Meets The Computer

If you ever get a chance to go to Leiden, take it. It is a beautiful little city that hides some high-power university research. It also boasts the world’s first rubber computer. You won’t be running Crysis on it anytime soon, though. The fledgling computer has memory and can count to two — really more of a state machine. It is easier to watch the video below than try to fully explain it. Or you can read through the actual paper.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that deformation in the corrugated rubber structure is apparently repeatable and represent bits in the machine. Pressing and releasing pressure on the structure forms both input and clock and it is possible for the material to go from state A to B on compression, but when you release pressure, it reaches state C. The compression and the angle of the pressure allow for different input conditions. One example rubber state machine counts how many times you compress the piece of rubber.

What do you do with a piece of smart rubber? We don’t know. Maybe if you wanted shoes to count steps so you could transmit the count once a minute to save on battery? The researchers have admitted they don’t have any specific applications in mind either, but presume someone will want to use their work.

Of course, the video’s title: “The Rubber Computer” is a bit of hyperbole, but we can forgive it. Most people wouldn’t get “The Rubber Finite State Machine.” While mechanical computing might seem a bit passe, turns out at the molecular level it may become very important. Besides, you can make a computer out of cardboard (or simulate that computer in an FPGA or spreadsheet, if you prefer).