The Busicom printing calculator, containing one of the first microchips

Invisible yet ubiquitous, small but mighty, unnoticed but life changing. Forty years ago the microprocessor was born, beginning the quiet but profound process which has radically reshaped our lives.

This month 40 years ago, Intel Corporation introduced the world’s first commercially available microprocessor – the Intel 4004 – triggering the start of the digital revolution. While most people have never seen a microprocessor, devices that contain them have become so integrated into daily life that they have become virtually indispensible.

Microprocessors are the “brains” inside computers, servers, phones, cars, cameras, refrigerators, radios, TVs and many other everyday devices.

“Today, thanks to the microprocessor, we live in a smart world, can do smart things and make smart choices. We don’t see them, but these tiny embedded computers shape our world to a remarkable degree,” said Intel South Africa’s head of marketing, Ntombezinhle Modiselle.

“From the cars we drive and tractors that plough the fields, to the fresh food delivered to our shops, billboards that advertise and machines that help us stay fit – they’re the invisible brains that power our daily being.”

Compared to the Intel 4004, today’s second-generation Intel Core processors deliver more than 350 000 times the performance and each transistor uses about 5 000 times less energy. In this same time period, the price of a transistor has dropped by a factor of about 50 000.

Such advances in chip technology are paving the way for an age when computing systems will be aware of what is happening around them, and anticipate people’s needs. This capability is poised to fundamentally change the nature of how people interact with and relate to information devices and the services they provide.

Future context-aware devices ranging from PCs and smartphones to automobiles and televisions, will be able to advise people and guide them through their day in a manner more like a personal assistant than a traditional computer.

Intel says intelligent traffic systems will guide drivers away from congested roads. Pill bottles will know if medicine has been taken. Retail signs will adjust to people’s age and gender. Home entertainment is getting smarter, with immersive 3D gaming, tablets that augment TV viewing and PCs that let you stretch across the world.

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