Microelectronics and, to a much greater extent, software, are two strategic, immensely powerful technologies. Here I try to explain, in the simplest possible way, why this happens and the basic characteristics of some modern integrated circuits (please note that, while this is a stand-alone, really general article, it was born as an introduction to this proposal for European Open Microelectronics (Education)
What are software and integrated circuits?
Let’s begin with some necessary definitions, in the simplest possible format, about the nature of software and digital integrated circuits.
Software may be described as sequences of instructions for machines. Software is crucial because is the technological common denominator behind practically every human activity these days (including “low tech” ones), from pension management to healthcare, car entertainment and efficient agriculture.
Software already encodes, processes and makes usable (or hidden) every kind of document, or digital communication, the contemporary society needs to exist. Movies, texts, music, diagrams, fashion designs, energy bills, phone calls: all this stuff and much more is encoded in sequences of “digits” (that’s where terms like “digital technology” or “digital communication” come from) that is Ones or Zeroes, that are generated, transmitted and decoded by software or by certain integrated circuits.
Now, being just a sequence of instructions that describe and implement some task, software can’t function by itself. Software programs “run”, that is are executed, on digital integrated circuits called microprocessors.
The basic components of these circuits are arrays of millions of microscopical electrical switches called transistors, that are literally drawn onto (integrated) layers of silicon. The transistors are connected by equally microscopic stripes of metal. Different sets of stripes, that is different connection schemes of the same transistors, implement completely different circuits: computer memories, video decoders, radar transceivers and so on.
A microprocessor (or CPU, Central Processing Unit) is an integrated circuit wired in such a way that it can load, understand and execute software instructions. Therefore, any box (“computer”) that contains it can, in principle, do anything for which you may write software compatible with that microprocessor, from photo editing to online chat or controlling car brakes. Computers are tremendously flexible.
Integrated circuits unable to execute software can be much faster than software, but are not flexible at all. The wiring mentioned above “freezes”, so to speak, an array of transistors into just one function, even if it is a flexible one as a microprocessor. The exception is constituted by FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays).
These integrated circuits are arrays of transistors whose connection can be set up by the end user after the underlying array itself has been manufactured. Above all, the connections can be different every time you power up the circuit. The same FPGA can be a hydroponic controller, a crypto-engine, a smart energy meter or many other things.
For all these reasons, FPGAs have an immense potential in many fields from testing to small/medium volume productions, to education. Development board with FPGAs, that can be used as digital design learning platforms, can cost as little as 100/200 Euros. Some FPGAs are big enough that you can create microprocessors inside them.
Where does all this lead us?
Yes, microelectronics makes the world work
The executive summary of the previous paragraph is simple: software keeps the world going. But software can only exist inside integrated circuits, that as a whole also provide many other crucial services.
Besides, while everybody with a used netbook can produce revolutionary software that will make her a billionaire, making state of the art integrated circuits is a terribly complex and expensive process. You need great amounts of energy, raw materials, water and really sophisticated machinery.
Those who control microelectronics manufacturing control the world pretty much like those who control oil fields or carbon mines. Maybe more, because you may produce all the energy you need yourself, but in order to do it you would surely have to use some microprocessor.
The same consideration applies to manufacturing: if you want to bring it back to your country, you’ll need much more microprocessors (to power robots if nothing else) in almost any factory.