“Honey, I shrunk the circuits”—or, computers in “not-computers”

25.02.2016 |

Episode #8 of the course Brief history of computers by Sudeshna Das

 

Computers started becoming smaller and more powerful while their costs decreased, again, as per Moore’s Law. Laptops and smartphones became household names. But most interestingly, objects that do not fit our idea of a computer were equipped with tiny computers called embedded systems.

The fundamental benefit of having embedded computers in our daily life is that they perform a specific set of tasks and thus cost less, while at the same time giving great performance.

Embedded computers are everywhere around us. Have a microwave oven? It has an embedded computer in it. Wearing a FitBit right now? Embedded computer!

The use of embedded systems allows objects like your refrigerator, air conditioner, and even your door to be able to communicate with computers. We already know what happens when computers communicate. That’s right! They form a network. From the widespread use of embedded computers emerged the Internet of Things (IoT).

Your FitBit, your smartphone, and your air conditioner are all connected. You run a mile, sweating like hell. Your FitBit lets your phone know that your body needs cooling. As soon as you reach home, your smartphone signals your air conditioner to switch on a full blast of cool air. You don’t need to do it on your own.

Left your windows open before leaving for work and now it’s raining? No worries. Just have your smartphone “tell” your windows to shut themselves up nice and fast.

There really are no boundaries to what IoT can do for us.

However, all this comes with a cost. How can you be sure that it is only you who can control the windows in your home, and not your evil neighbor who insists they did not let their dog out into your yard at night to poo? I mean, they have a smartphone as well. With the same app that controls your home. How do you prevent them from hacking into your home system, switching on every appliance you have while there’s no one home, switching everything back off before you come back, and racking you up a nice, hefty electricity bill at the end of the month?

Well, I am talking paranoid here, but it sure is a possibility. The computers of today are more secure than ever. But who made them secure? Humans. And who hacks into secure systems? Humans again.

While you chew on that thought, I’ll be off ensuring no one can hack my refrigerator into switching off when I have ice cream in the freezer. See you tomorrow!

 

Recommended book

“The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson

 

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