Exponentials At The Edge

The revolution that started in mobile phones will continue in other devices, but much faster.


The age of portable communication has set off a scramble for devices that can achieve almost anything a desktop computer could handle even five years ago. But this is just the beginning.

The big breakthrough with mobile devices was the ability to combine voice calls, text and eventually e-mail, providing the rudiments of a mobile office-all on a single charge of a battery that was light enough to carry and unobtrusive enough that it didn’t have to be strapped onto a belt. Mobile electronics have evolved far beyond that, of course. A smartphone today can plot the best route through traffic in real-time, download full documents for editing, record and send videos, take high-resolution photographs, and serve as a platform for interactive multi-player games. It even can be attached to headgear as part of a virtual reality system.

This is just phase one. The next phase will add intelligent screening for a growing flood of data across more devices. Most of the data being collected is completely useless. Some of it is useful only when combined with data from thousands or millions of other users and mined in a cloud for patterns and anomalies. The remainder will have to be dealt with inside a number of individual or networked edge devices, which can filter out what needs immediate attention and what does not.

This all sounds logical enough. If you partition data according to compute resources, then the usefulness of that data can be maximized on a number of fronts. It can be used to understand traffic patterns and develop new ways of capitalizing on them, which is much of the impetus behind AI and deep learning. If this sounds insidious, there’s really nothing new here other than the methods of acquiring, and the ability to centralize some of the screening processes. This is why there currently is a war being waged between IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Alibaba, Apple, not to mention a number of government agencies that are building their own cloud infrastructures. It’s also likely there will be many more private clouds built in the future, which will either democratize or protect that data, or both.

Developments at the edge are not just another rev of Moore’s Law, where processors double density every couple of years. The term being used more frequently these days is exponentials. It’s all about exponential improvements in power, performance, processing, throughput and communication. The main reason why companies are looking at advanced packaging options, including fan-out on substrate, 2.5D and 3D-ICs, as well as pouring money into 3nm transistors that can be patterned with high-NA EUV and directed self-assembly, is that multiple approaches will be needed and combined to achieve these kinds of exponential gains.

The payoff from all these efforts ultimately will be enormous, though. The entire smartphone/tablet market has driven much of the innovation in semiconductor design for more than a decade, and that was just one market. Collectively, all of these new applications will dwarf the size of the mobility market. And each also will add some unique elements that ultimately can be leveraged across market segments, driving new technologies and approaches and even new markets.

We are just at the beginning of this explosion, and not all markets are moving at the same pace. But the focus on power and performance is central to all of this, and for any of these new markets to live up to their potential, huge gains will be required over the next decade.

Technology is moving from the office or the home out into the rest of the world, where interactions are complex, unpredictable (at least so far) and continuous. All of this will require new tooling, different architectural approaches, and a massive amount of innovation in semiconductors to make this work. The chip market is about to get very interesting.

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