|November 2028 is the 40th anniversary of ESD. Click here read other 2028 lookbacks.|
Looking back over the past year, it's hard to ignore the significant advances that embedded processing has brought to the world. In particular, four prominent accomplishments come to mind:
For as long as anyone can remember, chip developers have longed for simple design tools. The “holy grail” has been to enable a bright 12-year-old to design a deep sub-nanometer processor using a hodge-podge of open-source drawing programs and spoken commands. Unfortunately, this vision has yet to pan out, but Microsoft subsidiary Google has surely delivered the next best thing: PowerPoint 2027 includes a PPT-to-Netlist converter, which allows marketing and sales representatives to create a graphical block-based ASIC floorplan in four easy steps (and millions of brilliant colors). Each block is automatically linked by label to a dizzying array of lower-level synthesized CPU elements, memories, and peripherals. The whole process takes about four hours, not including any animations or complex shading schemes.
While there has been some resistance to this approach from the silicon design community, the general impression is that the improvement in tape-out dates is more than enough to offset the effects of disgruntled designers, most of whom are returning to grad school to procure MBA degrees.
As we all know, 20 years ago the pundits were eulogizing Moore's Law, lamenting that transistor performance had finally peaked and that the only way to achieve faster speeds was to adopt multicore approaches. Well, that worked well for a while, until it sparked “Cores' Law”–that is, the number of cores on a processor platform doubles every 24 months. Ultimately, it was the development-tools vendors who revolted, after 32-core embedded processors taxed the limits of how many windows could simultaneously be useful and viewable on the IDDE (integrated development and debugging environment) screen.
Luckily, optical transistors hit the mainstream just in time. Once maligned for its relatively high power requirements and dependence on physical fibers, optical computing received a facelift with MEMS-based light coupling. This led to extremely dense optical transistor arrangements, which, in turn, injected new life into an embedded marketplace struggling for the next big performance leap.
Around 20 years ago, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the notion of using “electronic insects” for surveillance or warfare. The idea was to either completely synthesize a tiny robotic insect or to electronically manipulate the movements of unlucky vermin for personal advantage. As you may recall, after that idea got off the ground (literally) and was used to great effect in numerous military engagements and espionage missions, engineers began looking for alternative uses for these tiny marvels.
If for no other accomplishment, 2028 will be remembered as the year that “Swarm Computing” hopped out of the research wings of higher education and landed squarely on the windshield of commercial embedded applications. With adaptive personal area micronetworks controlling swarms of robotic insects in a “Queen-Worker” arrangement, the sky isn't even the limit anymore. One early example of an exciting application is a “personal music cloud” that replaces surround-sound movie theater systems with thousands of insects outfitted with microscopic speakers. Each insect's embedded “brain” constantly adapts for position within the theater, as well as for instantaneous effects required by the movie. This technology has obvious benefits for horror movies as well. Unfortunately, the personal music cloud is still too impractical to use as a wireless earbud substitute for roaming audiophiles, for social reasons.
Cell-based power sources
Building on technology perfected during the successful commercialization of DNA- and chemical-based computers in the early 2020s, self-powered implantable medical devices began to emerge in this past year. These chips possess the capability of extracting energy from mitochondria in human cells, essentially drawing on a limitless power source. Coupled with a now-ubiquitous E-UWB (extreme ultra-wideband) wireless link, as well as integrated MEMS-based blood analysis technology, these implantable devices promise to revolutionize medical telemetry and increase life expectancy significantly. Given that the minimum retirement age in the U.S. is currently holding steady at 81, this innovation holds out hope for an enjoyable post-work era.
David Katz is Blackfin applications manager for new product development at Analog Devices, Inc. He is co-author of Embedded Media Processing (Newnes 2005). Previously, he worked at Motorola, Inc., as a senior design engineer in cable modem and factory automation groups.
Rick Gentile leads the Blackfin DSP Applications Group. Prior to joining ADI, Rick was a member of the technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he designed several signal processors used in a wide range of radar sensors.