Guide to Mastering Electronics: DIGITAL ELECTRONICS--Computers, electronics and the future

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It is clear that the future of electronics, or at least a large part of its future, will be involved with computers. Just as the IC has in many cases replaced complicated circuits using discrete components, so it seems likely that the microprocessor and its offspring will replace whole systems.

The use of a microprocessor to simplify a complex system has already been discussed, but it is equally possible to use a microprocessor to make practicable a system that would otherwise have been too expensive or too large. Digital alarm clocks could have been made in the 1940s, but the time, effort, expense and overall size of the finished product made the project completely impractical. Systems that are today too large or too expensive to be sensible commercially may before too long, become cheap and commonplace as a result of advancing microprocessor technology. It is almost impossible to predict what these systems will be. Who, thirty years ago, would have predicted home computers? There is also the unexpected technological 'breakthrough'. It is this that really thwarts any attempt at long-term predictions. Such predictions must be based on current technology and likely developments of it. In the 1940s people were predicting 'radio valves the size of a pea' within twenty years. The discovery of the transistor actually resulted in whole computer CPUs substantially smaller than that, and electronics tiny enough to pack a complex multifunction chronometer system into a rather slim wristwatch, along with a battery that powers it for more than five years. The next unexpected discovery may be equally revolutionary.

In the immediate future it seems likely that computers, so far the ultimate in generalized systems, will be very widespread. Small computers are cheap, reliable and flexible enough to be used in applications ranging from interactive games (chess, backgammon, adventure games, 'reaction' games like the Space Invaders derivatives) to automatic production control. The index for this guide was produced using a very small 'home information technology. Information technology is the transmission of information of all kinds--pictures, text, numbers--through electronic rather than mechanical means. Large data bases, pools of information held in computer systems, generally on disk, will be available to people and organizations, and this should make for greater efficiency in domestic business life. Already the various teletext systems enable people quickly and cheaply to reach information held in a computer data bank. Computers linked to video systems seem to have great promise for the future, though it is commercial pressure that dictates the lines of development for technology. If there isn't a market for it, there is unlikely to be money available for the research.

Satellite television links, in which information from a transmitter on the ground is sent out into space to a communications satellite and then back again, mean that a single broadcast can reach a whole hemisphere of the earth. The social impact of this, particularly in undeveloped countries, may be considerable. The technological impact may be to force the development of inexpensive receiving systems.

Electronics technology is having, and will continue to have, an impact both on work and leisure. At work, microprocessor-based equipment is changing the face of industry. Word processors are more efficient than typewriters for most office work; they also make the job more interesting, and at the same time more taxing. Industrial robots are widely used for assembly work, replacing skilled and unskilled people in various routine tasks. In the short term, this is bad news. Commercial pressures will force companies to install robots, and inevitably people will lose their jobs. In the long term, more is being done for less effort on the factory floor--yet jobs are created in factories where the robots are designed and manufactured. There will be less dull, routine, dangerous and dirty jobs, but more jobs for trained technologists.

This brings us neatly back to the subject of this guide. An under standing-or mastery--of electronics is a skill that industry and society will need in the future. The design and production of electronic equipment, or of machinery controlled by electronics, is vitally important for the future, for it is in these areas that the lost production-line jobs will be recovered.

Look at the changes in our society that have taken place as a result of the development of electronics. Look at the effects of color television, video-recording, hi-fi, digital clocks and watches, calculators and computers, and look especially at the industries that have grown up as a result of these products. Look, too, at the effects of electronics on military technology: it is not now the largest army that wins a battle, but the army that is technologically superior.

Now try to guess how electronics and computers will affect us all in the next thirty years. Read science fiction. It may give you a few clues.

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