How ARM is ushering in a future of self-driving cars and intelligent paint
16th Jul 2013 | 09:37
Tiny sensors will make the 'internet of things' a reality
Cars that avoid accidents. Street lights that turn off when there's no one around. Battery-free sensors you can paint on the wall. The future of ARM processors is much bigger (and smaller) than the unsubsidised $75 smartphone and ARM-powered data centres you'll see pretty soon.
And these aren't idle predictions; this is the official product roadmap.
ARM has a unique advantage when it comes to future gazing, according to its Executive Vice President of Strategy Tom Lantzsch, speaking at the Future in Review conference. "Our engineering team that's working on product development today is working on products you won't hold in your hand as a consumer for probably five or six years."
It's not that they're slow; it's just that they're only the start of the process. "The time it takes them to do a design may be two years, by the time we hand out that over to our semiconductor partners it will take them two years to design and manufacture a chip and by the time it gets in the hands of someone making a product it will take them another 12-18 months," he explained.
That $75 Android smartphone will be on sale in developing countries within 18 months, he says. So what's in the lab now? "What I spend most of my time on now is commonly known as the internet of things."
The human touch
Although most people concentrate on the idea of sensors in products like the Fitbit tracker or the Nest thermostat, Lantzsch says the bigger picture is how they change behaviour. "This is the wave of adaptive learning, creating closed loop systems at a personal or industrial level that makes things more efficient. We will have billions, literally billions, of internet connected devices – and there will be some type of actions taken on this information."
Some of that is personal. "I'm sort of an athletic guy so I got into these gadgets early on. Two years ago, did I really understand if I ran a mile as a 53 year old guy at my pace, how many calories that burns? Which in my case is about 109. Now, I compare that to the chocolate chip cookie I see when I go to Starbucks, at 350 calories. It is having an impact on that decision process!"
On a rather larger scale, ARM is working with GE to make self-monitoring street lights. It starts by alerting the local council when a bulb is going to fail, so they can plan ahead and save money by being more organized about changing them. "But it will eventually get to shutting off those lights when there's no cars on that road. The system will make decisions faster and that will make us more efficient and we will learn from that and just constantly change the system."
Similar things are happening in cars with blind spot indicators and automatic braking and alerts telling the driver if their head is in the wrong position. "We're moving from making the car safe when it's in a crash to keeping it out of the crash altogether; we'll see more and more of that as the cost of semiconductors comes down."
Small is big
Sensors – powered by ARM chips – are going to get smaller. ARM chips already go into disposable and razors and let manufacturers replace 80 per cent of the copper in an HDMI cable with a signal amplifier. "We are driving towards semiconductors that will have some RF technology [to make a network] and literally be able to be put into paint. They can be in common items, in concrete.
"There are all sorts of interesting materials semiconductors will find their way into. They will be extremely, extremely small and very low power to the extent it really doesn't require an energy source, they can have a life of 10-15 years…"
The problem with energy harvesting at that scale is dealing with the heat produced inside the tiny devices, but Lantzsch told us his research team is confident they can make it work. He calls ARM's focus on power efficiency critically important: "We don't have enough power on this planet to keep up with our insatiable appetite for all this computing."
How long till these kind of smart materials and sensor-driven self-improving systems are up and running? "It will take 10-20 years before these things really become significant," he predicts, "but we'll see specific solutions along the way."
Who owns your data?
Smart systems aren't always right though, as Lantzsch found out the last time he flew to the US. "My last name is strange, it's got six consonants in a row. I was checking in on BA on my smartphone and as part of the checking process some smart programmer has recognized I'm in the UK and I've got this funny Germanic looking name so it immediately transferred me over to an all-German application - and I don't speak any German!"
Similarly, he doesn't think concerns about privacy and sensors are really about technology. "We've been selling hardware based security since 2002. We knew these issues were coming. We shipped 9 billion products last year that have the ability to do hardware based security. The fact of the matter is no one is taking advantage of it."
But when you collect details of your heart rate every five minutes, who gets to see that? Your doctor? A medical researcher? An insurance company that might offer you a discount for a healthy lifestyle?
What about your location, as gathered from your phone? "We're probably all fine with that if it's used so I know if there's a traffic jam because somebody has slowed down up ahead. I don't know if I'm happy if somebody knows it's me.
"Maybe I want to know about my 18 year old son and where he is, but he doesn't want me to. So who gets to decide? We're spending quite a bit of time thinking about this; we won't do any of this ourselves but we want to make sure our technology enables this information to be controlled."