Evolving and transforming the way we live

By Dr. Ashutosh Kumar Singh & Alexander Lau

An embedded system is defined as a device that is built specifically for a special purpose, either with a single function or multiple functions, carrying out tasks according to specific programmed instructions that cannot be re-programmed after the tasks have been completed.

Today, one of the world’s most significant embedded systems is the mobile phone. From the bulky box-like phones of yesteryear to the highly compact handheld variety of today, mobile phones are marvels of technology that are constantly evolving as technology progresses.

Indeed, embedded systems are everywhere and have evolved to such an extent that they have in many ways become absolutely essential to the everyday existence of human beings.

Ironically, computers are not regarded as embedded systems, as one would assume, given that they, too, perform multiple tasks and are as much an integral part of our everyday lives as mobile phones are. As the key to a device being an embedded system is that the final product cannot contain elements of programmability, computers therefore do not qualify as embedded systems.

There have been arguments as to whether handheld computers, more widely known as PDAs, are embedded systems or not. Although PDAs do contain elements of embedded systems, they are not true embedded systems. This is due to the fact that PDAs allow applications to be loaded and peripherals connected to them.

How did embedded systems come about? Embedded systems began to emerge once computers were created. The very first (and extremely large) computers paved the way for one of the very first embedded systems to be created, that is, the Apollo Guidance Computer. However, it was extremely risky as it was a new technology that included massive integrated circuits to reduce size and weight.

Embedded systems gradually evolved from such large devices to become devices of considerably smaller size and featuring far more complexity. In time, embedded systems required more and more electrical components, and as a result, and according to the economics of scale, the prices of the components plummeted. Ironically, largely due to their popularity, the market value of embedded systems has remained high in relation to the components that go into them.

As technology continues to evolve, embedded systems will also continue to evolve and become even more complex and compact. For manufacturers, it is the way forward technologically, and many will indeed attempt to create the ultimate in embedded systems.

However, developing new systems may not necessarily pay dividends for manufacturers. It is very dependent on the time/power/money constraints inherent in research and development and high-tech manufacturing.

Logically, the faster an embedded system is developed and completed, the less power it will consume, and subsequently, the higher the profit it can gain. On the contrary, if an embedded system takes a long time to be completed, it will drain the financial resources of the manufacturer, thus increasing productivity costs.

System designers will inevitably continue to create more user friendly devices which can perform at a higher capacity. However, consumers should know that such devices are hard to design and costly to manufacture as they are extremely complex. Some systems apply extremely complex integrated circuits while others require lines and lines of programming code to define their functionality.
In some cases, both of the circumstances apply. There is no doubt that designers will continue to pursue scientific and technological excellence, and despite the steep prices of devices, consumers should be grateful for their efforts.

At the end of the day, it cannot be denied that embedded systems have greatly enhanced the level of technology in this world, and consequently improved our lifestyles in various ways. For example, the mobile phones manufactured today more than fulfill their purpose, which is to use telecommunications to connect one person to another, and as a result, communication is a lot more convenient.

In addition, household electrical appliances such as vacuum cleaners help people clean their homes a lot faster and more conveniently; electronic media equipment make life a whole lot more fascinating; X-rays, scanners and laser therapy machines have vastly improved healthcare, and in the military, the introduction of modern navigation systems has led to an improvement in their strength and effectiveness.

As time goes by, technology will continue to improve, which means that embedded systems will inevitably continue to get more complex. However, complexity does not determine the profit the systems can earn for companies since embedded systems are still measured by the proverbial time, power and money constraints. The writers nevertheless believe that consumers should be grateful for the existence and continual evolution of embedded systems.

Dr. Ashutosh is a senior lecturer in Curtin Sarawak’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research interests include verification, synthesis, design and testing of digital circuits and he has published over 50 research papers in the subjects in various conference and research journals. He co-authored two books, ‘Digital Systems Fundamentals’ and ‘Computer System Organisation & Architecture’, and has delivered talks on computer engineering in several countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Dr. Ashutosh can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3214 or by e-mail to ashutosh.s@curtin.edu.my.

Alexander Lau is final-year student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and is presently completing his final semester at Curtin’s main Bentley Campus in Perth, Australia.