Hunting and gathering embedded systems resources

June 30, 2008

Jack Ganssle-June 30, 2008

At least one bird species uses a twig to dig insects out of holes in trees. Some primates open hard shells with branches used as clubs. The Attini ant is quite literally a farmer, cultivating patches of fungus and exchanging fungi species with other ant colonies. Clearly Homo sapiens is not the only species that uses tools to manipulate the environment. Four billion years of evolution has produced creatures whose fitness for their place in an ecological niche must be augmented by using and building things.

Tools are surely one of the defining marks of our species. In 10,000 years, we've gone from the wheel to the microprocessor, each invention a means to improve our lot in life.

We engineers are today's inventors, the creators of many of the products that improve and change the life of billions of our fellow Earth-dwellers. Most of the planet's population must now be aware of the microprocessor; surely billions of lives have been touched by embedded products in one form or another. Just last week, I talked with a company building tiny 5 kW microprocessor-controlled generators for use in the smallest villages in Nepal. Spacecraft beam TV and other communications products to all but the most remote African communities. Cheap datacomm is propelling Third World nations into the global exchange of trade and lifting some from abject poverty. Remoteness no longer isolates societies from the computer age.

In our rush to build products, we forget to look on the impact of our creations. Do you make routers? That project might seem to be just a very sophisticated way of shoving packets around, but in fact it's much more. As a primary component of the Internet, it quite literally puts food in hungry bellies. Save the Children ( and a hundred other aid groups solicit donations online and help current and potential donors see in near real time how a few dollars quite literally saves lives.

Your company's webcam lets distant grandparents connect with their descendants, the numerically controlled milling machine reduces the cost of all sort of consumer products, a DVD player substitutes a tiny hunk of plastic for hundreds of feet of videotape built from the most toxic of chemicals. The amount of good done by our products far exceeds what we imagine, especially when we're caught up in the drama and frustration of getting the silly thing to market on schedule.

And yet there are only a half-million of us producing these smart products. A mere handful of engineers whose impact has been quite profound. Perhaps this has always been true of the engineering profession. When Roebling designed the Brooklyn Bridge, cars didn't exist; could he have dreamed of the vast numbers of people who would use his concrete and steel edifice to earn a living, feed their children, and pay the mortgage? Could De Lesseps foresee the vast impact of his Suez Canal? Did Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce anticipate how integrating a few transistors onto a single chip meant devices could be smart, energy requirements reduced, emissions curtailed, and, of course, good jobs created for the 500,000 of us?

We're an odd and almost invisible breed. Mention computer and the average person thinks of a PC. Yet of the six billion processors made every year, only 250 million go to the desktop market. The rest are for embedded systems. Tell your neighbor you're a computer designer, and he'll immediately target you forever for answers about his problems with spreadsheet macros and sporadic system crashes. Embedded? Hey, is that why my car goes 100,000 miles between tune-ups? Ah, my new refrigerator uses half the energy of the older one . . . you mean there's a computer in there that manages temperature control, cuts my expensive electrical bill, and so helps me send the kids through college?

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