Better Living Through Microelectronics

From energy harvesting to prosthetics, semiconductor technologies have the potential to improve the human condition.


The recently completed 2018 Winter Olympic Games left many of us in awe of the athleticism on display. But this month’s 2018 Winter Paralympic Games, also being held in PyeongChang, South Korea, could be an even more impressive showcase of both skills and heart. Competitors from around the world will include athletes with a range of physical, intellectual and visual disabilities. Of course, the bionic prosthetics that I blogged about last month aren’t in play at the Paralympic Games, where computer-enhanced appendages are not allowed. But this month’s Games are perhaps even more remarkable because the human element – the heart and dedication of the athletes – is always a bigger factor than the technological component.

It has been argued by some people that amputees wearing bionic prosthetics have an unfair advantage over unimpaired athletes. Indeed, the technology being built into many of today’s artificial body parts is designed to assist the user. For example, inventor and advocate Dr. Hugh Herr, an amputee himself, has patented many innovative prosthetics designed for rigorous activities, including a bionic ankle that actually helps users to recapture some of the energy that they use in walking.

Harvesting ambient energy from movement is an example of a human-machine interaction that may soon be used to power new generations of devices such as wearable electronics. Innovative minds are working to develop mobile, wireless systems that are powered by a user’s body temperature or movements. Imagine if your smart phone or fitness wristband were continually recharged as you went about your everyday activities. You would never need to put them down to refresh their batteries, enabling these human-machine interfaces to go on working 24/7. Would this extend our use of these devices even more? Would wearable medical devices become less costly and more widely used, helping to improve the health of millions of people and aid in earlier diagnoses of serious illnesses? How might self-powered mobile electronics affect not only communications and healthcare but also other mass-market applications?

Could this energy-harvesting principle be extended to “fuel” automobiles from their own motion or temperature variations? We are already on the verge of seeing self-driving vehicles alongside us in our morning commutes as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) continue to evolve. In fact, automotive electronics are forecasted to be the fastest growing segment of the global semiconductor market over the next several years as the increasing capabilities and shrinking size of system-on-chip (SoC) devices are paving the way for on-board systems such as light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and digital-array radar. These examples of real-time imaging electronics are becoming more prevalent in not only high-end automobiles, but even basic rental cars.

Just as cars are becoming “smarter,” so are the systems employed to safeguard our society. Artificial intelligence (AI) – perhaps the ultimate example of human-machine interfacing – is being applied to create powerful cognitive engines capable of quickly crunching mountains of data to make law enforcement more efficient. From federal agencies to your local sheriff, police departments are using AI to evolve their data collection and analysis techniques from dusty binders of mugshots to comprehensive fingerprint databases to drone-mounted infrared cameras. Now police forces in China are integrating AI into the eyewear that officers are donning in the field. These smart spectacles allow cops remote access to databases back at their precincts, helping them to quickly confirm the identities of criminal suspects that they encounter on the street.

In the first entry in this six-blog series, I noted that the future of human-machine interaction is personal. People of all kinds are benefiting from their close connections with technology. Our abilities to enjoy active lifestyles, drive vehicles and even keep our communities safe all can be enhanced by the use of electronic devices available today. Emerging semiconductor technologies can take us even further.

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