Like anyone who designs computer chips for a living, James Myers is, at his core, a silicon guy. “Silicon is brilliant,” he says. Brilliant because it’s a natural semiconductor—able to both conduct electricity and act as an insulator, depending on the conditions—and because it can be engineered at small scale. Brilliant because it is the second-most-common element on Earth, probably clinging to the soles of your feet right now, and easily produced by heating sand. Those attributes have made it the bedrock of virtually every technology we use today. People like Myers, an engineer at the British semiconductor firm Arm, mostly spend their time thinking about how to pack more silicon into less space—an exponential march from thousands of transistors per chip in the 1970s to billions today. With Moore’s law, we are, as Myers puts it, “swimming in silicon.”
For the past few years, however, Myers has been looking beyond silicon to other materials, like plastic. That means starting again from the beginning. A few years ago, his team began designing plastic chips that contained dozens of transistors, then hundreds, and now, as reported in Nature on Wednesday, tens of thousands. The 32-bit microprocessor contains 18,000 logic gates—the electrical switches you get from combining transistors—and the basic lobes of a computer brain: processor, memory, controller, inputs and outputs, etc. As for what it can do? Think desktop from the early 1980s.