How “Chips” Make Your Life Easier
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
THE scientific name is microprocessor. “A MICROPROCESSOR? What’s that?” you may rightly ask. And how can something have much effect on daily life when most people do not even know what it is?
But its effects touch the lives of more and more people throughout the world. In fact, today microprocessing is a billion-dollar industry!
This technology is used in so many products now that a British government spokesman said: “There is no certainty about job loss if we do apply the microelectronic technology. There is absolute certainty about job loss if we do not.” Without using this new technology, a company or even a country would find it difficult to compete with the products of those who do use it.
But just what is a microprocessor? How has this relatively new technology, which has been called “a revolution,” affected our lives?
A typical microprocessor is made of silicon, one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust. And a hint of the size of a microprocessor comes from the prefix micro, meaning very small. A microprocessor is usually just a “slice,” or “chip,” of silicon about one quarter of an inch (6 mm) square!
However, its size belies its significance. Contained in this very small chip are many of the vital functions of a computer! Just one of today’s microprocessors is the equivalent in circuitry of most of the vital functions of the bulky computers of 25 years ago. Many thousands of circuits can be fitted onto one chip, and their capacity is constantly being improved. Indeed, one such circuit as small as a pinhead can do the work of many conventional circuits.
Microprocessors are relatively inexpensive to make. This means that computerlike functions can be put into a vast range of everyday products previously only within the range of expensive computers.
The earliest computers had tubes as key components. These were large, expensive and unwieldy to produce. But in 1948 the transistor was invented, replacing tubes. It was much smaller, more reliable and cheaper.
At first, transistors were made with germanium. Within a few years, though, silicon replaced germanium to make transistors more efficient. This led to the next step of the ‘semiconductor integrated circuit,’ a technique for making whole circuits with key components (such as transistors) on a single wafer, or “chip,” of silicon. This process made miniaturization possible.
Then, space exploration and military agencies had a need for very small, light, power-conserving and yet complex electronic controls for their satellites and missiles. Thus, research was done in this direction. It succeeded. Whereas in 1963 one silicon chip could hold the equivalent of eight transistors, by 1978 a single chip could hold one quarter of a million of them!
Thus, by the early 1970’s miniaturization techniques had advanced enough to put an entire computer onto just a few tiny chips. The microprocessor “revolution” was born, and uses for these chips have mushroomed since.
How They Are Made
The making of microprocessors is an extremely painstaking matter. Due to their minute size even a speck of dust can ruin a chip. Thus, although the most exacting procedures are used, a high proportion of the chips made are scrapped.
The process starts with a slice of pure silicon about half a millimeter thick, and a few inches wide. On this, several hundred microprocessors are made simultaneously, and later they are separated.
Intricate design drawings are made of the circuitry to be etched onto the layers of the chip. These are reduced by computer to one ten-thousandth of their original size, and then made into a photographic printing “mask.” This is somewhat like a photographic negative, and is used to etch the circuit patterns onto the surface of the silicon slice. Further layers are built up on the silicon in a similar manner.
On completion, a computerised probe checks the chips to establish their usability. The acceptable ones are then sealed in a protective cover, ready for use.
Of course, credit must be given to the inventors of these amazing chips. But credit must also be given to the One who made the human brain, the materials used and the natural laws involved. All these more difficult things were made by a far greater “inventor,” the Creator, Jehovah God.
Modern Uses Affect Our Lives
Due to the microprocessor revolution, we now have pocket calculators, digital watches, television games and hobby computers. Microprocessors can be found in a host of other products too, such as washing machines, ovens, food blenders, cameras, telephones and automobiles. They make possible automatic controls that replace less reliable mechanical ones.
These “mini-computers” can handle many chores in the home. They can be used to store information, such as telephone numbers, personal records, reminders for paying bills, recipes and many other things. All of these can be called up at the touch of a button, or in response to a spoken command.
One manufacturer has marketed “the first sewing machine with an electronic brain.” Instead of the seamstress having to make many tricky adjustments by hand, with this machine all she has to do is press the appropriate buttons for it to produce many complicated stitches. The skilled job of making a buttonhole, for example, becomes easy: just place a button in the machine’s holder, and it does the rest itself!
In the past few years, shops have undergone notable changes. You may have noticed that modern cash registers are quite complex devices. If you see a display similar to that of an electronic calculator, then a microprocessor is in use. As well as totalling your bill, it can note the type of product you buy so that automatically a list is being built up of items the store needs to restock. And if you use a credit card to pay, it can be automatically checked with your bank.
In offices, “desk-sized computers will become nearly as common as typewriters,” predicts Scientific American. They will store details of information needed for each person’s job and will be far easier to handle than bulky files, ledgers and reference books.
“Word-processors” are an application of chip technology to typewriting. They take over a number of the repetitious aspects of typing. Many businesses send letters to their clients, and these letters often consist of standard paragraphs. A word-processor stores such basic paragraphs and types them automatically. It can also regulate line lengths, layout and even correct simple spelling errors. If the text has to be rearranged, the word-processor will do this and allow for other alterations. Two or three such devices can do the work of many more typists.
Factories have already become quite automated. In the past, the problem was to know how to teach a machine the complicated movements that come easily to a human worker. Microprocessors have largely overcome this problem and are being used to control robot arms.
Similar principles are being applied to farm work so that, for instance, ploughing can be performed by a driverless tractor, working continuously day and night.
Causes for Concern
This newfound electronic help is making more and more of man’s tasks easier, with increased efficiency. It has helped to eliminate many boring and dangerous jobs, freeing people from much physical effort and saving them time.
However, freeing people from physical effort and giving them more time can be a mixed blessing. If the time is used unwisely, simply for seeking pleasure, it will not necessarily improve a person’s life. It can do the opposite—degrade it. And having machines doing too much of our physical work can prove detrimental to our physical health.
For any of the advancements in technology to be used wisely, the knowledge needs to be balanced with appreciation of spiritual values. It needs to go hand in hand with unselfish concern for one’s fellowman and a greater awareness of our Maker, since any good thing comes from his giving us life and the ability to improve it.
[Blurb on page 23]
Credit must go not only to the inventors of these amazing chips, but also to our Creator, who gives the unique ability to produce such things
[Picture on page 21]
Part of a “chip” enlarged over 100 times to show how complex it is
[Pictures on page 22]
A tiny chip only 1/4 inch square helps to bring us products such as these