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How microprocessors have changed your life

How microprocessors have changed your lifeThere is a microprocessor in almost every piece of electronic equipment you own. But what are they, and why are they so important?

What is a microprocessor?

A microprocessor is an integrated circuit that performs all of the operations of a computer, but on a single chip. A microprocessor is made primarily from silicon and, as the name suggests, it is tiny! They are usually around the size of a fingernail, but they are extremely powerful.

Put simply, a microprocessing chip is a very small, stripped-down version of a computer capable of performing information-processing functions.

What does it do?

A microprocessor gives instructions to a machine. The chip can tell your watch, for instance, what time an alarm should go off, or that daylight savings time means it should adjust the time by one hour. 
Microprocessors take over instructions that were previously performed by mechanical methods. They are a way of making the machine ‘intelligent’. Rather than performing a simple mechanical function, the machine can regulate the function so that it performs it to precise specifications, pre-programmed onto the chip. 
Modern microprocessors are extremely powerful. The earliest chips could process about 60,000 instructions per second; by 2006 they could process 27,100 million instructions per second.

Can you give me an example?

Sure. The computer that you’re reading this on has a microprocessor. Also your phone, camera, video camera, xbox – almost any electronic device you might own. There are also microprocessors inside some cars – they can regulate the temperature on the air con, keep time and speed (if the readout is digital it is likely there is a microprocessor behind it). 
There are also examples that may not be quite so obvious – household appliances such as microwaves and washing machines use microprocessors to regulate time, heat, speed, and store different settings.

How are they made?

Microprocessors are made in bulk. Many are made at the same time, on a thin slice of silicon a few inches wide. Silicon is used because of its conducting properties. It can be altered to be either an electrical conductor or an electrical insulator.

Today’s microprocessors are built up in layers – around thirty layers for each one, although this depends on how complex the chip is. Each layer is wafer-thin, and is ‘etched’ with part of the final circuit design. When the layers are put together, the elements of each one work together to create the processor.

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