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Tiny Computer

January 24, 2016

Does my toaster have a tiny computer inside it?  I don’t know.  I assume it does.  It has the usual lever that lowers the toast and sends power to the elements.  It also has a control that regulates the shade of the toast, and three buttons.  Each button has a light enbedded within it.  One button is labelled `Cancel’.  The light comes on as soon as I push the lever down.  When I press the button, the lever pops up along with the toast.  The other two buttons control functions.  One press enables the function and lights the light.  A second press disables the function and turns out the light.  One is labelled `Bagel’.  It turns off the middle element so that the bagel toasts only one side.  The other is labelled `Frozen’.  I don’t know what it does.  I’ve never had occasion to use it.

Somewhere inside the toaster must be a controller board.  I’ve never opened it up to see what was on that board, but I can guess.  Consider the inputs and outputs.  The inputs are the lever, the shade control and the three buttons.  Outputs are the three elements, the three lights, and the mechanism that releases the lever.

It would certainly be possible to control the toaster with descrete devices.  The logic is pretty simple.  There has to be a timer on the controller board, taking input from the shade control.  The rest is all switching, based on the three buttons.  Maybe that’s what’s on the controller board.  It’s even simpler to control the toaster with a tiny computer operated by firmware.  All of the inputs and outputs could be sensed or driven by the computer.  The timer could be built entirely in software.  The logic could be entirely in software too.  If anything went wrong, it could be corrected by a simple firmware upgrade.  I’ll bet that’s what’s in my toaster now.  Using a tiny computer is simpler and cheaper.

Several years ago, I noticed the same change in my car.  I got two recall notices.  They sounded pretty serious.  One was a rare condition where rapid shifting between forward and reverse, while the car was stuck in mud or snow, could damage a gear in the transmission.   The other, again a rare condition, could result in excessive carbon buildup in the engine if the car was driven for short distances in cold weather, so that the engine never warmed up.  I remember when I worked at my father’s dealership, that we regularly got change orders from the car company.  They generally required mechanical changes, such as modifications to the valve body of the transmission or to the orifices of the carburetor.

My car was different.  It was operated by many small computers.  Both of the conditions in the recall notices were corrected by firmware upgrades, one for the transmission computer, and one for the engine computer.  The took only a few minutes each.  The service manager told me that he wasn’t sure how long it would take.  “You know how computers are”, he said.  I chuckled at that, but didn’t say anything to him.  After all, I probably knew more than he did about computers.  The upgrade did only take a few minutes each.  Once again, tiny computers are simpler and cheaper than mechanical components.

 

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