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As the Max Plank Institute prepares for the commissioning of its first commercial Tokomak fusion generator later this year, it provides a wonderful backdrop to reflect on the innovation that has taken place in the first quarter of the 21st century. Fusion, the long sought after and highly anticipated source of power, has finally become practical after a burst of activity in the last two decades. The major breakthrough came when real-time solvers on FPGA Infinicore systems made it possible to stabilize and control the plasma indefinitely. Rapid commercialization is now underway with the promise of near limitless clean energy.
Indeed, no one would have expected to see such advances as we see today in energy, medicine, and technology as little as two decades ago. What feels to be an exponential increase in the pace of innovation is due in large part to the ubiquitous nature of embedded devices. With the “format wars” on design tools finally decided, the standardization of high-level graphical design tools and heterogeneous hardware make it possible for any domain expert–nuclear scientists to stay-at-home spouses–to target an array of devices, from environmental sensing networks across the globe to personal processors in our clothes that detect nutrition and hydration deficiencies. The buzzword is no longer “embedded intelligence” but instead “embedded inter-operation.”
The environmental movement begun at the beginning of this century proved to be a catalyst for transformations in several areas. Obviously the energy sector saw great change and “cleaned up” by moving its focus to carbon-neutral technologies, but that shift created additional, unexpected advancements. For example, bio-reactors that can feed on carbon emissions and convert them into reusable materials like bio-diesel and fertilizer. This particular byproduct of renewable energy research has all but eliminated “dead zones” in our oceans that at one point appeared to be unstoppable.
In order to facilitate innovation, world governments began funding what is now known as the Global Sensor Network (GSN), composed of hundreds of millions of environmental sensors primarily embedded devices with reconfigurable I/O, backed by a massive computing network and accessible by anyone with an interest. Leading edge groups like the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing began distributing sensors in environmentally sensitive areas at the beginning of the century and connected them to the GSN whose distributed data storage has now ushered in the zettabyte age. All governments, companies, universities, foundations, and individuals deploy sensors across the globe, from rainforests and ocean floors, to homes and offices, parks and roads. Today researchers can apply new models and experiments to the network, facilities managers can track their energy footprint, and individuals can check their local weather, air quality, allergens, and possible airborne viruses.
The everyday nature of embedded design reaches all the way to life automation, where cars that largely drive themselves make the commute to work the most productive part of my day, and home and yard maintenance can be programmed and distributed to the autonomous devices around my home. Today's “embedded everywhere” lifestyle can also be credited with society's increased interest in engineering and science as a career. Robotics programs from the first decade of the 21st century, like FIRST and LEGO's Mindstorm robots, sparked the nation's engineering fascination, and today we are seeing the benefits. In fact, this year marks the first year that there are more web-sitcoms about engineers than about lawyers.
Dr. James Truchard , cofounder and CEO of National Instruments, is a pioneer in the development of high-level, graphical design tools for embedded systems. At 85 years old, only slightly beyond today's normal retirement age of 82, he is still actively involved in the continued innovation at the company.