Science & Technology in Action

8th Edition

Firmware At Work

Boston Scientific

This lesson examines some of the elements that contribute to the revolution in intelligent technology — such as software, firmware, robotics, microcode, miniaturisation, microprocessors — and indicates some exciting developments that are underway.
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Contains the full lesson along with a supporting toolkit, including teachers’ notes.

Lesson excerpt

A major part of the technological revolution which has transformed our lives is the intelligence that is now built into everyday gadgets and into the machines that produce them. For instance, Africa, which is generally regarded as lagging behind in terms of development, leads the world in the use of “Mobile Money”, i.e. the use of mobile phones to transfer money, and in this way leapfrogging intermediate levels of technology. This lesson examines some of the elements that contribute to this technological revolution - such as software, firmware, robotics, microcode, miniaturisation, microprocessors – and indicates some exciting developments that are underway.

What is a Computer?
Traditionally computers have been number-crunching machines, which first filled whole rooms but now can be held in the palm of your hand. In fact, any device that uses electronic means to capture an input and transform it using a set of instructions electronically into a useful output is essentially a computer. Computer systems are broadly composed of two main parts: the hardware or physical components of the system and the software or programs that provide the instructions telling the computer what to do. The hardware elements comprise five main components:

1. input devices, which capture some physical aspect of the world such as keystroke, change in temperature, audible signal etc. 

2. processing unit or CPU (Central Processing Unit), which carries out the software instructions;

3. processing memory: RAM (Random Access Memory), which acts as temporary memory,

4. storage memory: ROM (Read Only Memory), which provides a permanent memory; and

5. output devices: e.g. printers, displays or mechanical tools.

Software controls every element of hardware. This is most evident in the programs used by the CPU that process information for personal or business use, such as word processing, numeric calculations, and games. One classification of software distinguishes...

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True or False?

  1. ‘Mobile Money’ is money easily moved between countries. false
  2. ‘App’ is the abbreviation for ‘computer appliance’. false
  3. In a computer each element of hardware is controlled by some form of software. true
  4. ROM is the short-term memory element of the CPU. false
  5. ‘Systems software’ gives computer hardware its basic functionality. true
  6. Firmware derives its name from the retail business. true
  7. Firmware cannot be modified once embedded on a chip. false
  8. ‘Non-volatile memory’ is not affected when the power source is turned off. true
  9. Each microprocessor requires multiple microchips. false
  10. Moore’s Law states that improving algorithms doubles computing power approximately every two years. true
  11. ‘CAM’ automates physical work. true
  12. Microcode is the programming format closest to programming in bits. true
  13. Controlling systems through feedback is a recent innovation. false
  14. This lesson could equally be called ‘Artificial Intelligence’. true
  15. Control of artificial limbs through thought control has not yet been achieved. false
  16. ‘ALU’ stands for ‘Arithmetic Logic Unit’. true

Glossary of terms

systems software
non-volatile memory