Microprocessors: The World’s Tiniest Micromanagers

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A computer’s processor performs the way it sounds – taking in information and processing it. A processor functions as the brain of a computer by relaying instructions to other components. A microprocessor is simply a processor that fits on a microchip. Microprocessors execute instructions in a variety of formats, like data, audio and video. They are used in electronic devices, such as tablets and smart phones, and are employed across a multitude of industries, including health, automotive, weather forecasting, communications and defense.

Characteristics of a Microprocessor

A microprocessor can execute a certain set of commands, called instruction sets. These instructions involve data transfers, arithmetic and logical computations, control flow and input and output (I/O) control.

Every microprocessor contains an internal clock that regulates how quickly it executes instructions. This clock also synchronizes the processor with other components within an electronic device. Clock speeds are measured in MHz or GHz, which stand for millions or billions of electromagnetic wave frequencies per second.

Word size is the number of bits (a measurement of computer data) a microprocessor can process at once. The first microprocessor (Intel 4004) was a 4-bit processor. Each generation of microprocessor since has increased in word size. Most microprocessors used today have a 32-bit or 64-bit architecture.

How Does a Microprocessor Work?

A microprocessor receives instructions from a computer’s memory, which comes in two parts. Read only memory (ROM) contains a fixed set of instructions that cannot be added to or altered. ROM stores data when power to a device is turned off. Random access memory (RAM) can be both read from and written to. However, it only stores data while power is supplied. Without power, RAM forgets all instructions. Upon device start up, a microprocessor pulls instructions first from ROM. Then it will send data and perform further instructions from RAM.

The system bus allows communication between memory, microprocessor and external I/O. The system bus contains different sets of wires that perform different data transfers. The data bus carries data, the address bus carries the address of a memory location or I/O port and the control bus carries clock, interrupt and ready signals.

Connected to the bus system are four blocks known as the register array that allow for the temporary storage and retrieval of data, instructions and commands. This is a quicker process than storing or retrieving such information from memory. One of these registers is the Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU), which performs mathematical calculations when necessary.

The final part of a microprocessor is the control unit, which acts as a brain within the brain. While the processor pilots the electronic device, the control unit governs the inner workings of the microprocessor and supervises instruction execution.

The Future of Microprocessors

Intel believes the future of microprocessors lies in neuromorphic computing – technology that mimics how the brain grows. The prototype chip Loihi currently contains up to 100 million artificial neurons and creates its own pathways as it learns. Recently, the chip taught itself to identify hazardous materials by smell, showcasing deep learning capabilities that are faster and more efficient than traditional microprocessors.

Currently, microprocessors are made from silicon, but the material has limitations. Researchers are looking for materials that could be made thinner, more flexible and have a higher critical electric field strength threshold. Such breakthroughs could have wide implications for many other electronic devices, too.