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Chips in your head


Microprocessors have invaded all walks of life from wristwatches to tea-cups. Most of us would remember the nursery rhyme `Polly put the kettle on, let’s all have tea’. While in the nursery rhyme Polly was a human being (or was it a parrot?), in the digital age Polly could well be your computer. Today, almost every other consumer product for household use incorporates a small chip that controls its functions.

We all know that digital watches contain a small micro chip that drives the functions of the watch and tells the time. Multi-functional watches that offer chronometrical functions have sophisticated computational circuitry built into a single square centimetre of space. Such chips are fabricated on the circuit board itself and cannot be detached or swapped. Hence, if the chip fails, the watch needs to be discarded.

All electronic consumer goods sold today contain these small microprocessor chips that control vital functions of the product. Hence a toaster microchip would contain a timer and temperature control mechanism built in, a television or tape recorder would contain several chips, as would a motorcar. Some cars manufactured today have more computing power than the most advanced super computers built ten years ago. These built-in or embedded microprocessors are the brains that drive the products. While most parts of a consumer product can be replaced, it is very difficult to replace or change an embedded chip should it fail to function. And most embedded chips are not of the plug-in variety. They are hard-wired with the requisite software and the code is burnt into the silicon of which they are made.

Thanks to contemporary programming languages microscopic processors embedded into products like tea-pots, microwaves, air-conditioners, televisions and other household goods, it is now technically possible to verbally order your television set on or off or your tea-pot to warm up your coffee.

While channel surfing may still require manual operation of the remote, voice recognition (VR) software has advanced enough to provide basic on-off functions. And with most gadgets using built-in microprocessors, it is not very difficult to incorporate a VR option.

As most consumer goods become multi-functional, electronic chips are replacing mechanical systems. So today you have chips in your air-conditioner, Walkman, wristwatch, camera, washing machine, toaster, microwave, electric cooker, you name it.

However, the day is not far off when your Reebok or Nike shoes will also house embedded chips that compute the inflow of air into the soles of the air-cushioned shoes. Some of them already have mechanized versions. Even your fountain pen may have a micro computerized system to control the flow to its nib based on the pressure exerted on the nib.

Or maybe eyeglasses that have a microscopic chip built into the framework to modify the curvature of the lens or adjust the opacity depending on the intensity of the light. Thermal or heat-sensitive garments used in certain industry incorporate miniature microprocessors that modify the texture and other properties of the fabric like sensitivity etc. Cushions and seats in cars and aero planes are already automated to adjust to the pressure exerted on them. Artificial organs that can be implanted into the body to replace faulty valves etc also use built-in microchips. Pacemakers, artificial lungs, or kidneys that are already commercially available run on micro chips. Very soon, a malfunctioning section of the brain could be replaced by a microchip – and then digital brains are not far away.

The original article was first published in The Economic Times and can be found online at:,prtpage-1.cms+%22Flynn+Remedios%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=75&gl=in


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