On the ubiquitousness of microcontrollers

On average, a commoner deals with about fifty processors every day

At first, this sentence pronounced by a teacher during a course stroke me. It took me a bit of time to think it over, and it turned out to be insightfully true.

Factually, many people know that processors are the “brains” in their computers. Tirelessly, they execute hundreds of millions of operations every second, a pure example of human ingenuity. However, very few know that the great bulk of these entities — 99% — are massively used outside computers, they have not only revolutionized computers, they’ve revolutionized everything.

A processor is a too broad notion, and I am confident in saying that the statement was intended to include microprocessors, the incarnation of processors in a smaller scale. These tiny chips whose job it is to fetch, interpret, and execute the commands, are embedded in larger, and more generalized devices called microcontrollers.

If you don’t use a phone to wake up, odds are you have a digital alarm clock with a seven segment display. Be they alarms with display only or sophisticated appliances with more functionalities, these devices contain microcontrollers, mainly 8 bit microcontrollers that manage the display.

In the same vein, many household appliances such as washing machines, air conditioners, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators widely use microcontrollers, all the more so as they’re more modern and developed. Microcontroller units (MCU) control and manage nearly every single feature: motor control, analog sensor measurements and LED/LCD displays, to name but a few.

Besides, most of the motors, controls, safety devices, entertainment and convenience features in modern passenger cars are managed by microcontrollers. Public transportation means are boons for these tiny chips. Their abundance in processors is such that dozens are used and interconnected in buses, tramways, and metros, bringing more ergonomy and efficiency.

Also, if you happen to be doing some calculations on a post 1970 calculator , you’ll almost certainly be dealing with processors. In a very minimalistic calculator, when you press a key, the keyboard circuit detects an electrical contact in its sensors. As soon as the embedded processor figures out the pressed key, a circuit in the chip activates the appropriate segments to display the number corresponding to the button. When doing an operation, it’s the arithmetic and logic unit, a part of the processor, that takes takes it in charge.

Last, you inevitably own a phone and a laptop, or at least use one at work. Microcontrollers are literally everywhere. In modems, routers, audio/video players, radios, TVs, vending machines, ATM and PIN/payment terminals, intercom units, and the list goes on. Reflecting this abundance, the market for microcontrollers is today worth more than $16billion a year and growing strongly. Next time someone asks you who rules the world, tell them about the power of microcontrollers!