[AI] Computers top poll of modern discoveries

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Wed Apr 14 02:26:49 EDT 2010

          The microprocessor has been voted the greatest innovation of 

          past 50 years. Rightly so, says Federico Faggin

by Federico Faggin

TWO inventions have shaped our modern world more than any other: the
engine and the computer. Where the engine captured and extended the
human capacity to do physical work, the computer did the same for the
capacity of the human brain to think, organise and control. This power
has now pervaded not just homes and offices but also tens of thousands
of products where it once didn't seem to fit, thanks to a small and
beautiful device called the microprocessor.

Early computers were huge machines constructed from heterogeneous
technologies and were very costly and wasteful of energy. Fifty years
ago, a computer was an end in itself - it was inconceivable to put a
computer inside, say, a toy or an electric toothbrush.

Semiconductor technology changed all that. Semiconductors made it
possible to shrink computing components down to previously
unimaginable sizes, enabling the invention of the microprocessor. This
extended the idea of what a computer could be and provided a
conceptual framework for delivering the immense power of computing
technology into practical components that could be manufactured in
volume, and therefore at low cost.

The microprocessor led naturally to the microcontroller, an entire
computer on a single integrated circuit: very small, inexpensive and
energy efficient. Today there is no industry and no human endeavour
that hasn't been touched by microprocessors or microcontrollers.

Microprocessors and semiconductor technology are co-evolving, one
feeding the other in a cycle of growth limited only by the "food"
supply - the ability to make ever smaller transistors. This process is
not only delivering ever smaller, faster and cheaper microprocessors,
but also adding capabilities such as sensors and motors. We can now
routinely make digital video and still cameras smaller than a grain of
rice, optics included, costing less than a dollar. As time goes on, we
will be able to mass-produce ever more complex and complete systems.

We are fascinated with creating machines built in our image. The
microprocessor is arguably the greatest of them all.
The microprocessor is arguably the greatest of all the machines
created in our image
 Federico Faggin was part of the team that developed the Intel
4004, the world's first commercial microprocessor, released in

The greatest discovery of the past 50 years
We invited computing pioneer Federico Faggin to write this piece to
celebrate the microprocessor's victory in a poll to find the discovery
that has had the greatest impact on the world in the past 50 years.

To mark the lauch of the website ImpactWorld! we teamed up with
the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), one of
the UK government's main science funding agencies. The EPSRC came up
with a list of 10 discoveries and nominated an eminent scientist to
make the case for each one.

The discoveries were: the mobile phone; space exploration; magnetic
resonance imaging; the World Wide Web; the global optical fibre
network; error-correcting codes; lasers; public key encryption; green
chemistry; and the microprocessor.

The microprocessor won hands down with 48 per cent of the vote,
followed by the World Wide Web (31 per cent). Everything else was
languishing in single figures.

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