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FSA keynoter eyes 'ambient intelligence'

Posted: 10 Oct 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:imec? nano? nano electronics? nanotechnology?

Rudy Lauwereins, vice president for design technology at the Belgian IMEC research institute, came to the Fabless Semiconductor Association (FSA) Expo here Thursday with a "dream" about ubiquitous computing devices that blend into their environmentand some ideas for making them real.

Lauwereins' keynote address, entitled "bridging the gap between giga-scale systems and nano-scale devices," provided a look at some of the thinking and research at IMEC, which he described as Europe's largest independent research center aimed at nano-electronics, nanotechnology, and systems design.

Lauwereins said he was "dreaming" about an ambient intelligence environment, in which "secure, trustworthy computers and communications are in everything and everybody." This environment could include everything from smart homes and automobiles to personal assistants and insulin sensors, assuming the systems adapt to the ambient environment and are sensitive to the presence of people.

Such devices, Lauwereins said, will be enabled by four technologies: ubiquitous wireless access, huge advances in sensors and actuators, polymer electronics that allow flexibility, and embedded computing. Lauwereins envisioned transducers that provide up to 10 million operations per second but dissipate only microwatts.

There are two pathways to creating these intelligent devices, Lauwereins said. One, called "more Moore," provides more computational power through silicon integration. The other, called "more than Moore," goes beyond CMOS to bring in passives, MEMS, bio-sensors, and fluidics.

But Lauwereins had a warning about the "more Moore" approachthe cost reduction that comes from going to lower process nodes is slowing down. No longer is there a two-fold cost reduction by going to the next process node. "Moore's law may be stopped by economics before it's stopped by physical limits," he said. "My colleagues are convinced we can go to 10 nm or below, but it's all about money."

Power efficiency has to be enormous, Lauwereins saidon the order of 10 to 200 giga-ops per second per watt. Non-recurring engineering charges must be low. What's being asked for, essentially, are computing devices two orders of magnitude more powerful than high-performance Intel processors, at one-twentieth the cost.

There are two gaps to bridge to bring dreams to reality, Lauwereins said. One is the architectural gap, and the other is "the nanoscale hell of physics." To cross the architectural gap, Lauwereins said, we need methods, tools and skills to map multiple software applications onto one platform, along with programmable and reconfigurable platforms.

Both power efficiency and flexibility are required, Lauwereins said. One way to provide both is "software washing," which involves changing the way software uses memory so it's more power efficient. IMEC has ongoing research in this area and has spun out a company, PowerEscape, with some of the results.

Also important, Lauwereins said, is exploiting parallelism, which can reduce the clock frequency and the power supply voltage dramatically. "To parallelize and map a sequential program onto a parallel system you need tools, but these do not exist yet," he noted. The need is urgent, he suggested, given that multi-core systems might have 10 to 20 processing devices now, and over 100 in the near future.

Lauwereins described an IMEC processor extension built around a tightly-coupled VLIW matrix that exploits both loop-level and instruction-level parallelism. It has been applied to software-defined radio and multi-media processing. "Most importantly, we start with C code and compile into an architectural template," he said. "No VHDL or Verilog; it's much more flexible."

IMEC is also working with technology that can make memories run faster or slower at run time, using arrays of buffers. A controller can select memories that run in fast or slow modes. This provides faster speeds and a power reduction compared to a worst-case statistical approach, Lauwereins said.

The "more than Moore" approach can open the door to new classes of devices, Lauwereins said. One example might be a flexible, implanted device that senses the level of insulin in the blood and can communicate to a wireless pump when more is needed.

Lauwereins said IMEC has developed a 3D sensor platform that includes power generation, sensing, computation at 20 million operations per second, power consumption of 100 microwatts, and wireless capability up to two meters, all at a very low cost. He envisioned grid networks composed of smart sensors.

Other IMEC work includes wafer-level packaging that can place an inductor on top of passive silicon, and a live neuron placed on top of silicon. "We can fire the neuron from the electronics, or detect from the electronics whether the neuron is fired," Lauwereins said.

The real way to convert "ambient intelligent" dreams to reality, Lauwereins concluded, is by mastering complexity. That will allow systems-on-chip with hundreds of devices and "large, clean applications" that can be mapped into them, he said.

- Richard Goering

EE Times

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