We've come a long way in the past twenty years. I still vividly remember the arrival of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the first commercially available color computers. I was only seven years old back then and I remember the discussion with my father, who obviously needed to cough up the cash for this latest thingamajig, he did not see the need, nor the practical use of a computer. Many engineers of his age felt similar, a computer could be used to do calculus and arithmetic, but not do then daunting tasks such as communications and process control.
Fig 1. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum, introduced back in 1981, featuring 16KB total RAM, and 8-color display.
Looking back I realize that his approach was just as effective, with a handful of components he could build just about anything, for example, a level control regulator for keeping the water in a reservoir at a certain level by controlling the valve on the feedline. Back then flexibility was not the primary concern; thus a simple piece of control circuitry would suffice. Today we can build the same level control regulator at the same price, but probably cheaper, with a microcontroller with the added advantage that we can program it. Or even better have it program itself, to fit the supply and demand from the reservoir, which would have been too much for the simple circuitry of twenty years ago.
The same actually applies to many other simple things that we use daily, a dimmer used to contain no more than a high voltage phase/power regulator, and a control knob. Modern dimmers even come with remote or voice control and have presets and built in timers. And now that I think of it, when was the last time you programmed your VCR, that used to be quite a challenge, now it is just a matter of typing in the numbers.
Simply put, devices have become smarter because technology has evolved to a stage where features are abundant and cheap to implement and there's a microcontroller in just about every piece of electronic equipment. But if you think that that's where it ends, think again. In the next 10 years we'll see devices starting to 'talk' to each other, making your life even easier. Just imagine the alarmclock telling the coffee machine to make a fresh pot of coffee at 7:00am, it then tells the toaster to toast a few sandwiches and subsequently tells the computer to download today's issue of the New York Times.
What we'll see in the near future is the networked house, with all of the devices in it acting to make the inhabitants live a lot easier. I hope my dad will be around when this finally is commonplace, because then would be a good time to discuss his arguments for not getting me that Sinclair ZX Spectrum twenty years ago.