Microchips: Our constant companions
It won’t come as a surprise to most people to hear that microchips are found in smartphones, motor vehicles and, of course, computers. These days, however, microprocessors and memory chips are permanent fixtures in our households too.
Microchips are electronic circuits on a small semiconductor that can record, store and process data. We all rely on them every day. Our daily lives would be unrecognizable without the “DNA of modern technology” – whether we are using PCs or laptops, travelling in cars or aeroplanes, or playing on a gaming console. While we are generally aware of the role that modern electronics play in these machines and devices, there are others in which they work entirely under cover of darkness. The fact of the matter is that microchips are found absolutely everywhere. Our lives would – quite literally – no longer function without them.
Cooking up innovations
The degree to which semiconductor technology has already taken root in our everyday lives became particularly apparent during the coronavirus crisis. Painfully apparent, even. Many manufacturers of cars or household appliances were plunged into turmoil as a result of production bottlenecks and supply chain problems. As the marketing director of Robam, a Chinese provider of premium kitchen equipment, explained at the time: “Most of our products are already optimized for smart homes, so of course we need a lot of chips.” A shortage of these microchips meant that the company was forced to postpone the launch of a new extractor hood by four whole months. Smart hoods like these not only regulate the required flue intensity, but also have sensors that are capable of recognizing the degree to which the food has already been cooked. In fact, by analysing the smoke, it can even warn users if the food on the stove or in the oven is in danger of burning.
But smart kitchens can do much more besides that. Intelligent refrigerators that can tell when a particular item of food is running low and order replenishments online are now standard in many households. Rather less well known are the WiFi-enabled ovens that can be operated via smartphone. You can turn the oven on, regulate the temperature and turn it off without even being at home. German company Siemens also offers a voice control feature in its kitchens, which can also be used for the dishwasher and the coffee maker. Thanks to microchip technology, you no longer talk to the cook but instead directly to the kitchen…
Great hair, great teeth
Needless to say, these kinds of features – which, not so long ago, still sounded like the stuff of science fiction – are not limited to the kitchen. Washing machines and tumble dryers can also be controlled via app (you still need to iron by hand, though). However, the little chips can do far more than “just” allow you to communicate with household appliances. For instance, the microchips found in hair straighteners keep the temperature constant by measuring it several times a second using sensors. If the device moves from an already straightened (and therefore hotter) strand of hair to the next (cooler) strand, it automatically increases the heat.
Once your hair is perfectly straight, you can reach for an electric toothbrush with microchips of its own. Or, to be more precise, a sonic toothbrush. The name might suggest that this device uses sound waves to help you clean your teeth. But in fact, a sound transducer controlled by a microchip converts electric voltage into high-frequency sound waves that in turn cause the bristles on the brush head to oscillate.
Whether we like it or not, going to the doctor is sometimes part of everyday life. And this includes the time spent waiting in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals so that we can be sure of receiving professional treatment. But medical care is another area in which microelectronics are bringing about considerable improvements. Microsoft, Apple and other key players in the IT and technology sector are already working on relieving doctors of a significant part of their work: medical documentation. According to studies, doctors are forced to spend two thirds of their time on paperwork, leaving less time to actually treat patients.
Help is coming in the form of microchip-controlled voice systems that can be used for medical documentation. They listen actively to the discussion between doctors and patients, recognize technical terms, access online information, analyse what they hear and finally produce a medical report that only needs to be signed off by the doctor. This means that doctors have more time for patients – and that patients spend much less time waiting to be seen.
The fact of the matter is that microchips are not just everywhere – it’s impossible to imagine life without them. As well as making our daily routine easier and entertaining us, they help to save lives – for instance in vehicles and in medical diagnostic equipment. And, in doing so, they help to make our world a better place in many different ways.