What is so Special about Digital Systems?

No area of technology has had or is likely to continue to have more of a profound impact on our lives than digital system development. That’s quite a statement, but its truth is obvious when one considers the many ways we have become dependent on “digitized” technology. To put this in perspective, let us review the various areas in which digital systems play an important role in our lives. As this is done, keep in mind that there is significant, if not necessary, overlap in the digital system technologies that make possible those areas we have come to take for granted: computing, information retrieval, communication, automatic control systems, entertainment, and instrumentation.
Computing: A computer, like the telephone and television, has become almost an essential part of every household. Word processing, information retrieval, communication, finance and business management, entertainment, art and graphics — these are but a few of the functions performed by our beloved computers. In the span of a little more than 10 years, computers in the home and in small businesses have advanced from what was termed microcomputers to the present computers with nearly mainframe capability. Home computers can now perform relatively sophisticated operations in the areas just mentioned. Of course, vastly improved computer speed and memory, together with powerful software development, are primarily responsible for the rapid rise in personal computer capabilities. In addition to the digital computer itself, there are other digital devices or peripherals that are normally part of a computer system. These include disk drives, CD-ROM drives, modems, CRT and LCD monitors, sound cards, scanners, and printers. Then there are the hand-held calculators that now have nearly microcomputer capability and are quite inexpensive. All of these things have been made possible because of the advances in digital system technology.
But this is just the beginning.
Information Retrieval: The ability to consult one’s favorite encyclopedia via CD-ROM or surf (browse) the World Wide Web (WWW) has become a very important part of computer use in the home, at school, and in business. The use of CD-ROMs also permits access to information in the specialized areas of literature, music, religion, health, geography, math, physical science, biology, and medicine, to name a few. But information retrieval is not limited to these functions. Network communication between computers and our ability to tap into huge university libraries are other important sources of information. Think of where businesses would be without access to data-base information that is critical to day-to-day operation. Local and national security operations depend heavily on data-base information stored on computers that are most likely part of a network. Yes, and then there is education. What an invaluable source of information the computer has become both in the classroom and in the home.
Communications: It would be hard to imagine what our world would be like without the ability to send facsimile (fax) communications or e-mail. These are digital transmission methods that were developed to a high degree of sophistication over a period of about 10 years. Of course, the modem, another digital device, has made this possible. Digital communication is hardly limited to fax and e-mail. One’s home phone or cellular phone is likely to be digital, permitting a variety of features that were difficult if not impossible to provide by means of an analog transmission device. Scientific data, national security information, and international communications, all of which are collected and transmitted back to earth by satellite, are accomplished by digital transmission methods with accuracy not possible otherwise.
Automatic Control Systems: Digital automatic control systems have replaced the old analog methods in almost all areas of industry, the home, and transportation. Typical examples include rapid transit systems, integrated circuit fabrication systems, robot systems of all types in assembly-line production, space vehicle operations, a variety of automobile associated operations, guidance systems, home security systems, heating and air-conditioning systems, many home appliances, and a host of medical systems.
Entertainment: Who cannot help but be awed by the impressive computer generated graphics that have become commonplace in movies and in games produced on CDs. Movies such as Jurassic Park and the new Star Wars series will perhaps be remembered as having established a new era in the art of make-believe. The games that are available on the home computer include everything from chess and casino-type games to complex and challenging animated aircraft operations and adventure/fantasy games. Then add to these the high-quality sound that CDs and the Internet produce, and one has a full entertainment center as part of the personal computer. Of course, the incursion of digital systems into the world of entertainment extends well beyond movies and games. For example, one has only to listen to digitally recorded or remastered CDs (from the original analog recordings) to enjoy their clear, noise-free character. Also, don’t forget the presence of electronic keyboard instruments ranging from synthesizers to Clavinovas and the like. Then for those who consider photography as entertainment, digital cameras and camcorders fall into this category. And the list goes on and on.
Instrumentation: A listing of the many ways in which digital system technology has affected our lives would not be complete without mentioning the myriad of measurement and sensing instruments that have become digitized. Well known examples of electronic laboratory testing equipment include digital voltmeters, ammeters, oscilloscopes, and waveform generators and analyzers. Then there are the sophisticated medical instruments that include MRI and CAT scan devices. Vital signs monitoring equipment, oximeters, IV pumps, patient controlled analgesia (PCA) pumps, digital ear thermometers, and telemetry equipment are typical examples of the many other ways the medical industry has made use of digital systems technology.
If one considers what has happened in, say, the past 15 years, the path of future technological development in the field of digital systems would seem to be limited only by one’s imagination. It is difficult to know where to begin and where to end the task of forecasting digital system development, but here are a few examples in an attempt to accomplish this:
Computer power will continue to increase as the industry moves to 0.10/x (and below) CMOS technology with speeds into the terahertz range and with a demand for more efficient ways to sink the heat generated by billions of transistors per processor operated with supply voltages of one volt or below. There will be dramatic changes in the peripherals that are now viewed as part of the computer systems. For example, vacuum (CRT) monitors will eventually be replaced by picture-frame style LCD monitors, or by micropanel displays using either DLP (Digital Light Processing) or FED (field emission display) technologies. Digitized high-definition TV (HDTV) will eventually replace all conventional TV sets, and the World Wide Web (WWW) will be viewed on HDTV via special dedicated computers. In all, larger, sharper, brighter, and clearer computer and TV displays are to be expected, together with a fast-growing and impressive assortment of wireless hand-held and wrist-bound devices.
Expect that the mechanically operated magnetic storage systems (disk drives) of today will soon be replaced by a MR (magneto-resistive) technology that will increase the areal storage density (gigabits per square inch) by a factor of 100 to 200, or by OAWD (optically assisted Winchester drive) and MO (magneto-optical) technologies that are expected to increase the areal density even further. Eventually, a holographic storage technology or a proximal probe technology that uses a scanning tunneling microscopic technique may provide capabilities that will take mass storage to near its theoretical limit. Thus, expect storage systems to be much smaller with enormously increased storage capacity.
Expect that long-distance video conferencing via computer will become as commonplace as the telephone is today. Education will be a major beneficiary of the burgeoning digital age with schools, universities and colleges both public and private being piped into major university libraries and data banks, and with access to the ever-growing WWW. Look for the common film cameras of today to be replaced by digital cameras having megapixel resolution, audio capability, and with the capability to store a large number of pictures that can be reviewed on camera and later presented on screen by any computer. Expect that certain aspects of laser surgery will be microprocessor controlled and that X-ray imaging methods (e.g., mammography) and radiology generally will be digitally enhanced as a common practice. Also, health facilities and hospitals will be linked for immediate remote site consultation and for specialized robotics surgery. Expect digital systems to become much more sophisticated and pervasive in our lives. Interconnectivity between “smart” electrically powered systems of all types in the home, automobile, and workplace could be linked to the web together with sophisticated fail-safe and backup systems to prevent large-scale malfunction and possible chaos. Such interconnected systems are expected to have a profound effect on all aspects of our lives — what and when we eat, our exercise habits, comfort and entertainment needs, shopping activities, medical requirements, routine business transactions, appointment schedules, and many others imaginable.
Optical recognition technology will improve dramatically in the fields of robotics, vehicular operation, and security systems. For example, expect that iris and retinal pattern recognition will eventually be used to limit access to certain protected systems and areas, and may even replace digital combination locks, IDs, and licenses for such purposes. Taxation, marketing, and purchasing methods will undergo dramatic changes as digital systems become commonplace in the world of government, commerce, and finance. Even the world of politics, as we now know it, will undergo dramatic change with the use of new and more efficient voting and voter sampling methods. Mass production line manufacturing methods by using robots and other digitally automated mechanical devices will continue to evolve at a rapid pace as dictated by domestic and world market forces. Expect that logic minimization tools and automated digital design tools will become more commonplace and sophisticated, permitting designers with little practical experience to design relatively complex systems.
Business networking will undergo dramatic improvements with the continued development of gigabit Ethernet links and high-speed switching technology. Home connectivity will see vast improvements in satellite data service downloading (up to 400 kbps), 56-kbps (and higher) modems that need high-quality digital connections between phones and destination, improved satellite data service with bidirectional data transmission, and DSL (digital subscriber line) cable modem systems.
Finally, there are some really exciting areas to watch. Look for speech recognition, speech synthesis, and handwriting and pattern recognition to dramatically change the manner in which we communicate with and make use of the computer both in business and in the home. Somewhere in the future the computer will be equipped with speech understanding capability that allows the computer to build ideas from a series of spoken words — perhaps like HAL 9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built-in automatic learning capability may yet prove to be the most challenging undertaking facing computer designers of the future. Thus, expect to see diminished use of the computer keyboard with time as these technologies evolve into common usage.
Revolutionary computer breakthroughs may come with the development of radically different technologies. Carbon nanotube technology, for example, has the potential to propel computer speeds well into the gigahertz range together with greatly reduced power dissipation. The creation of carbon nanotube transistors could signal the dawn of a new revolution in chip development. Then there is the specter of the quantum computer, whose advent may lead to computing capabilities that are trillions of times faster than those of conventional supercomputers. All of this is expected to be only the beginning of a new millennium of invention limited only by imagination. Remember that radically different technological breakthroughs can appear at any time, even without warning, and can have a dramatic affect on our lives, hopefully for the better.
To accomplish all of the preceding, a new generation of people, technically oriented to cope with the rapidly changing digital systems technology, will result as it must. This new generation of people will have a dramatic impact on education, labor, politics, transportation, and communications, and will most certainly affect domestic and global economies. Thus, expect that more pressure and responsibility will be placed on universities to produce the quality training that can match up to this challenge, not just over a short period but also in the long term.
Not yet mentioned are the changes that must take place in the universities and colleges to deal with this rapidly evolving technology. It is fair to say that computer aided design (CAD) or automated design of digital systems is on the upswing. Those who work in the areas of digital system design are familiar with such hardware description languages as VHDL or Verilog, and the means to “download” design data to program PLAs or FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays). It is possible to generate a high-level hardware description of a digital system and introduce that hardware description into circuit layout tools such as Mentor Graphics. The end result would be a transistor-level representation of a CMOS digital system that could be simulated by one of several simulation tools such as HSPICE and subsequently be sent to the foundry for chip creation. The problem with this approach to digital system design is that it bypasses the need to fully understand the intricacies of design that ensure proper and reliable system operation. As is well known, a successful HSPICE simulation does not necessarily ensure a successful design. In the hands of a skilled and experienced designer this approach may lead to success without complications. On the other hand, if care is not taken at the early stages of the design process and if the designer has only a limited knowledge of design fundamentals, the project may fail at one point or another. Thus, as the use of automated (CAD) designs become more attractive to those who lack design detail fundamentals, the chance for design error at the system, device, gate, or transistor level increases. The word of warning: Automated design should never be undertaken without a sufficient knowledge of the field and a thorough understanding of the digital system under consideration — a little knowledge can be dangerous. The trend toward increasing CAD use is not bad, but automated design methods must be used cautiously with sufficient background knowledge to carry out predictably successful designs. Computer automated design should be used to remove the tedium from the design process and, in many cases, make tractable certain designs that would otherwise not be possible. But CAD is not a replacement for the details and background fundamentals required for successful digital system design.


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