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The "Internet of Things" has become a common buzzword, but what potential does it bring, and what design challenges must be overcome to create it? Freescale president and CEO Gregg Lowe has done some serious thinking about these issues, and he shared his thoughts in an entertaining keynote speech at the Design Automation Conference (DAC 2013) June 3.
"The Internet of Things is not a stretch," Lowe said. "It's happening today. It kind of crept up on us and it's evolving at a very rapid pace." In 2010, he noted, the number of connected devices in the world exceeded the number of humans. According to some predictions, there will be 50 billion connected devices five years from now.
But this sea of smart devices raises some challenges. "If the Internet is going to reach everywhere, then embedded processing solutions need to get a heck of a lot smaller," Lowe said. One example is the Freescale Kinetis 32-bit microcontroller, an "ant size device that is moving us closer to the concept of digital dust."
Smart Diagnostics, Smart Energy
Lowe didn't dwell on the Kinetis, but he noted that the inspiration for it came from a customer who wanted to place a wireless diagnostic device into a pill that an individual could swallow. This could provide a high-quality video of the inner workings of the human body, resulting in significantly less invasive diagnostic procedures.
Another area of opportunity for the Internet of Things is "smart energy" in the home. Lowe observed that utilities are beginning to deploy smart meters that monitor energy consumption and improve distribution. Someday, Lowe said, as you leave work "the system will know you're on your way home. It will cool down your billiard room, put on some tunes, and crack open a cold one for you." (Well, maybe not the last one, but the first two are very possible, he said).
But automotive electronics are possibly the most dramatic example of the shift towards the Internet of Things. The car, said Lowe, is "the ultimate mobile device. Electronics makes cars more comfortable, greener, safer, and connected." Today the car industry is developing vehicle-to-vehicle communication that could be used to avoid accidents - warning of a car that's running a red light, for instance.
But what are the requirements for these advances? The Internet of Things will require cost-effective solutions for connected nodes that will access cloud-based services. The demand for bandwidth will "continue to explode" and solutions are underway that will be smaller, smarter, and more energy efficient, Lowe said.
The primary challenge for the engineering community, Lowe said, is to increase performance while reducing energy consumption. He noted that half the energy consumed in datacenters is used to cool the heat generated by the datacenter itself. With a car, by some estimates, only 13% of the fuel actually moves the car forward. "IC designers will have to find a way to dramatically reduce power, or we'll have a whole bunch of connected devices that don't have juice to run."
As more smart devices connect to the Internet, security will also become very important. "The days of simple software bolt-ons are gone," Lowe said. "Security will need to be embedded at the hardware level and in the ICs themselves."
Lowe also noted that processor complexity is advancing faster than EDA tools. The challenge for EDA, he said, is to enable "deterministic circuits" with predictable performance. He suggested that new types of behavioral models could dramatically reduce power consumption by tapping into ideas like bio-synthetic deisgn, where "replicating the efficiency and massive parallelism of a cellular structure could make energy per bit a million times more efficient."
"I and the rest of this industry are counting on people in this room to rise to these challenges and come up with solutions that will move our industry forward," Lowe concluded. "Together we can unlock the potential of the Internet of Things."
For live coverage from DAC 2013, see our multimedia site.
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