This is a part of my goodbye to an active role in the world of electronics, a world I have been a part of, as a PR person and a journalist, for nearly 40 years and, if you add on previous use of computers, including using teletypes on ARPANET, for nearly 50. In a few days, I will close down my commercial activities, and, although I will be looking at writing a book on an aspect of electronics history, I will no longer be an active player.
I am going to use this as an opportunity to have a ramble through some of the things I currently find interesting or irritating in the industry and some of things I will miss, and let off a little steam.
My current most active irritation-trigger is the obsession with process geometries in certain marketing groups, in various chat rooms, and on some news sites. For me, the topic has as much relationship to reality as some of the questions on Quora: “Would a regiment of Orcs defeat a platoon of today’s Gurkha soldiers?” The only people who should really be interested in the process geometry are the poor souls who have to fight the boundaries of physics to get smaller dimensions for greater density. When they are finally within sight of a working process, the marketing geeks look around the industry, put a finger in the air, and pluck out a geometry number that is better than their competitors’ and, presumably, not sufficiently far away from reality that their engineers finally revolt. Then, many billions of electrons are bounced around as people pontificate on who is winning on a particular product front. An indication of how silly this has all become is the decision a couple of years back by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors to give up roadmapping processes altogether. While it is fun to watch the latest and greatest, these have only limited use in very high-volume devices, and they obscure the value of older processes. Mentor, ARM and Imec have been pushing the idea that with low-cost tools (Mentor bought Tanner EDA’s low-cost portfolio) and old established process technologies (180 nm or even larger), you can use Cortex cores and proven IP, including analog and mixed signal, and build in fabs whose equipment has been written down so will charge very little, to get relatively small volumes of useful things into production very quickly.
This brings up another problem with chasing down the process nodes: the extreme costs involved. EUV (Extreme Ultra Violet) lithography systems, essential to continue chasing process shrinks, are finally entering the market but are priced at above $100 million per station. There are estimates that TSMC’s next plant, rumoured to be built to be 3nm compatible (whatever that means) will cost $20 billion.
People I have spoken to have expressed concern about TSMC’s dominance of the foundry industry. They are concerned that, with over 50% of the pure-play foundry business, TSMC is in too strong a position. Since their turnover is more than the next ten companies combined, there is little sign of a challenger.
There are aspects of manufacturing that are exciting. I think FD-SoI is a technology that has still to make the impact it deserves. Both Samsung and GlobalFoundries are working on extending the pioneering work of ST and LETI. GlobalFoundries is claiming 36 customers and more than a dozen tape-outs. NXP is shipping processors built on FD-SoI, and several start-ups are looking at it for their products. It is a much simpler manufacturing process than the Fin-FET approach being driven by Intel and many of the established companies, and it can be valuable in many low-power applications. Recent research by VLSI Research suggests that developers working on RF and mixed-signal projects are expressing interest in FD and that process-node junkies are reassured by a roadmap extending the 28 nm and 20 nm available today to 12 nm and beyond, even though there is no real comparison between FD and Fin-FET geometries. Earlier this month, Paul McLellan provided an interesting summary of the VLSI Research findings. (https://community.cadence.com/cadence_blogs_8/b/breakfast-bytes/posts/fd-soi-and-finfet-dan-hutcheson-re-runs-his-survey )
Also exciting is the RISC V open-source architecture. It is being adopted by a number of small start-ups as the basis for new products, and larger established companies are investigating it. In the latter case, it might be just to use RISC V as a bargaining counter in negotiations with Arm, but the smaller companies see the availability of an open-source architecture as a definite opportunity. Arm’s position has been that there is not a RISC V equivalent to their ecosystem, but that is changing with a flow of RISC V announcements from the established development-tools companies. In addition to tools, silicon is also available from a number of vendors, and dev boards, including multi-core implementations running Linux, are opening up potential markets. My favourite at the moment is the work at CEA Tech in France to build a system with 1,000 RISC V cores.
Open Source software is continuing to make ground in the embedded business. A straw in the wind is the move by Amazon Web Services (AWS) to support and extend FreeRTOS and to provide a number of other tools, so that developers of devices for the IoT using AWS as their cloud server will be encouraged to use quality tools in their development. Who would have thought that an on-line bookseller would be developing IoT service and designing AI chips? Or that a search engine company would also be a major advertising channel, a supplier of AI chips, a supplier of one of the most widely used mobile operating systems of smartphones, and a mobile network operator?
Looking forward, the biggest problem is going to be software. Much of the exciting stuff – like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles, relies on software. And a lot of today’s software is poor. Software guru Jack Ganssle states that “The average firmware teams ships about 10 bugs per thousand lines of code.” That is even after the software has been “debugged”. We accept engineering disciplines in hardware design, but not in software. The recent profusion of over-hyped schemes teaching all kids to code is not going to solve the problem; it is merely inadvertently downplaying the professionalism of software engineering. Despite an enormous amount of evidence that investment in tools and good working practices reduces development time by cutting down on the time needed for testing and debugging, coders still show an enormous resistance and instead accept as normal that a significant amount of time will be spent in debugging – that is, removing the errors that the coder introduced. There is even an argument that, instead of working hard to ship bug-free software, you should ship software as soon as possible and plan to then ship patches. Now, where have we seen this model? Oh yes – much commercial software for the early PCs. Is this really an appropriate approach for AI, or autonomous vehicles? Chip designers have accepted that the task of laying out the transistors, once the core of their technical skill, is best done using tools. When are coders going to get there? Instead of recognising that tools can provide a route to faster development of error-free software, there is always an enthusiasm for the latest fashionable route to code nirvana. The Agile feeding frenzy is an example of this. The original Agile manifesto had a lot of shrewd thinking, but its most enthusiastic adopters chose the bits of the approach they found acceptable and ignored the rest. An example is the statement that values “working software over comprehensive documentation”. This is frequently interpreted to mean that there is no need to carry out documentation. I first heard this argument in the early 1970s, when it was “my code is sufficiently clear that it doesn’t need documentation”. His successor didn’t agree.
An example of how strict disciplines can produce amazing engineering is the Mars Rover Opportunity. Built for a 90-day operational life, it has now been on Mars for nearly 15 years. True, the software has been upgraded several times, but that this was even possible is a reflection of how strong the initial design was.
Tied into this is the increasingly important question of ethics. How many coders even know about the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, published jointly by IEEE and the ACM? This applies to all software, but AI brings its own challenges. Despite the existence of Asimov’s fictional Laws of Robotics since at least 1942, there is still a lot of debate (there are multiple university centres of cyber-ethics) and not much action around creating an ethical code specifically for AI. It is also interesting that we are only just recognising that a lot of unconscious bias is being built into some AI systems. Much of the AI work is being done by men, and particularly men working in a mainly US style environment. (Those of us outside the US are well aware of the unconscious bias on many US websites.) This could well be a cause of issues when the AI system is working in a totally different culture. Just on a superficial level, most US/European-developed systems use the colour red as a sign of problems; in Chinese culture, red is associated with positive things.
Obviously, writers of code for criminal acts are not going to be bound by a code of ethics, but cyber-crime and cyber-warfare are going to be significant elements in the future, and companies and other organisations that are not preparing themselves to cope with this, by putting into place tools and monitors and thorough staff training, are going to face enormous problems. There will also be a constant balancing act between restraining the bad people on the web and maintaining freedom of expression. And AI-based tools are probably going to be the only way to stay ahead of the bad guys, especially if they are state-backed bad guys: there is ample evidence that at least Russia and North Korea are carrying out serious aggressive cyber-space activities (and I am not including any possible meddling with elections in either the US or the UK). Certainly, the US, the UK, and China have all publicly announced that they are looking at AI for protection and for counter-attacks, and Putin has hinted that Russia is, as well. There are concerns that we entering an arms race in cyberspace.
One thing I am going to miss is meeting, and keeping in touch with, the small companies who are building new things, like the clusters around LETI in Grenoble, France and Imec in Leuven, Belgium. The ones I know best are in the UK and include XMOS, a novel processor architecture now working on audio applications, UltraSoC, which provides IP for building analytics into chip designs, Graphcore, an architecture for AI, Ultrahaptics, which uses ultrasound to create tactile sensation in mid-air for an alternative human-machine interface, and Imperas, the creator of virtual platform technology for building software for embedded systems. I am also fascinated by companies in Germany’s Mittelstand. These are small and medium enterprises, often family owned, who are not seeking world domination but in their niche are technology leaders. An example is Lauterbach GmbH. From a small town in Bavaria, they are a world leader in debugging tools for embedded systems.
Also exciting, if slightly peripherally, is the work on graphene going on at the University of Manchester. After a slightly over-hyped period about five years ago, we are now in a period where solid work is going into finding applications for graphene in a wide range of industries. One set of projects was under the “Graphene Flagship” umbrella, one of the European Union’s biggest research efforts, which included projects on using graphene for electronics, photonics, biomed, composites, sensors, and energy – including batteries, large solar cells, and supercapacitors.
And that brings us to our last irritation button-push – the UK’s decision to pull out of the EU. This is going to be a serious problem for the small companies that I have mentioned, as well as for those electronics companies that are larger. To take an example that is a hot spot as I write: the EU is creating Galileo, a GPS system that is independent of the USA’s and Russia’s systems. Despite already having contributed over a £1 billion, ($1.2 billion), they have been assembling the payloads and are providing the sites for two of the control stations. Britain was one of the major influencers in the agreement that involved building Galileo and providing that access to aspects of it should be limited to EU members. Now, as Britain is leaving the EU, it is to be thrown out of the project and blocked from access to the services for governments, the military, and security services. In return, the British Government is suggesting that it will create its own system. Galileo has so far cost over £8 billion, and any competitive system will be at least that amount.
The UK car industry, a major and fast-growing consumer of electronics, is already pulling its horns in. Jaguar Land Rover is moving production of the Discovery SUV to Slovakia next year and shedding jobs in the UK. Nissan, Toyota, and Honda have established large manufacturing plants in the UK, designed to serve the whole of Europe, and they are expressing concerns about the future.
The only mitigating feature is that the British industrial policy, including attitudes towards electronics companies in other countries, is not being shaped by twitter messages sent in between bites of a Big Mac and sips of a Diet Coke.
I have enjoyed writing for Techfocus Media and EEJournal. It has given me the chance to meet interesting people doing exciting things. It has been great working for one of the last bastions of professional journalism, not just in electronics, but across the board. We don’t have a printing press, but we do strive to be objective (even in some of my comments above) and to report fairly. With all my worries about the future, I will miss being part of the electronics industry in its widest sense and EEJournal in particular. Good luck and good wishes to you all.
*Valedictory – unlike the American usage for high school graduations, in English usage, the term valedictory is used mainly when an Ambassador writes a summation at the end of his term in a country. This is my attempt at a valedictory as I leave the strange and fascinating country of electronics.