Computers as small and light as particles of dust are moving out of the realm of science fiction, according to a Wall Street Journal story published last week.
It changes what is possible in computing. It opens up new investment opportunities.
It is already possible, although not entirely practical, to make computers the size of a grain of rice. That's small. However, building wireless devices the size of dust particles, yet fully capable of sensing their surroundings, computation, communication and self-power, would be a monumental leap.
In August, Gartner Inc., a leading information technology research firm, added smart dust back to its Hype Cycle for emerging technologies.
Much of the recent push is about timing. Developers are excited about advancements in sensors, the internet of things, fifth generation wireless networks and edge computing. Connections are getting so fast and networks are so powerful, building nanoscale computers finally makes sense. The possible applications are mind blowing.
Factory floors will brim with machines smart enough to understand when maintenance is required. Tiny sensors will monitor farms, giving early warning of crop damage. And cities will be able to keep track of vehicle traffic and people flows. Computing devices no larger than a speck of dust connected to powerful networks, would bring new advances in business, medicine and surveillance.
Given the possibilities, is it not a huge surprise military interests were at the forefront of early smart dust development. The Rand Corp. and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency began working on microelectromechanical systems way back in 1992. Five years later, DARPA funded the research of Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering at UC Berkeley.
At the time, Pister imagined a world in which ubiquitous sensors could measure everything that could be measured. Immediately, he thought about environmental applications. Pinpointing weather patterns would be a killer application. His military benefactors were thinking about tracking people. Ironically, a decade later many people would begin voluntarily carrying devices, coupled with private sector software, that would accomplish the same thing.
As far-fetched as it seems, researchers believe they see a path over most of the stumbling blocks. They have a roadmap to developing devices on a nanoscale level. They also believe they can overcome the communication and computing challenges. Right now, the issue is power. Getting all of those sensors juiced up and and staying connected to the network seems to defy the laws of physics.
The Journal points out that a smattering of startups are working on silicon that consumes minuscule amounts of energy. One company, PsiKick, a maker of batteries for Internet of Things applications, claims its chip consumes one million times less energy than an iPhone.
Other firms have tried to harness energy from vibration, light, magnetism, temperature and chemical reactions. Success has been varied. RFID tags, for example, get their energy from a base station. As the reader accesses the tag, it comes alive with bags of useful information.
Passive WiFi uses backscatter communication to transmit power to existing WiFi chipsets. University of Washington engineers were able to shoot power through walls to off the shelf smartphones from 30 feet away.
One of the best way for investors to play the ultra-low power trend is Analog Devices (ADI - Get Report) . In the near term, its SmartMesh IP is building a standards based ecosystem around energy-efficient wireless networks. It is eight times more energy-efficient than other standards, and networks are scalable, sustainable and self-healing. SmartMesh networks make good economic sense for companies pushing computing to the edge of their networks.
Over the longer-term, Analog continues to work toward smart dust. Dust Networks, the company founded by Kris Pister, was acquired by Linear Technology in 2011. Today, the IP lives on as DustCloud, an Analog Devices subsidiary.
Analog Devices had $5.1 billion in sales during 2017, an increase of 49% over 2016. Despite this, like other semis, it has been mired in a global trade-induced funk. Trade groups and investors fear the worst is yet to come as the trade war escalates.
Analog trades at only 15x forward earnings. Its market capitalization has fallen to $33 billion. Given the outlook for innovative products, like smart dust, this valuation seems low.
Investors can buy the stock into further weakness over the next few months.
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