Machine Talk

What do machines do in their spare time? And can they be bought?

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The Internet of Things raises some interesting questions that have never been fully addressed in semiconductor design. For instance, how do you assess the necessary performance for any particular thing? And how long is another thing willing to wait for information to be passed along?

These sound like fairly basic engineering questions—until you consider that the Internet of Things is actually a giant system rather than a bunch of individual devices functioning in isolation. A good proxy is the transition from television receivers to the so-called smart TVs. A television receiver simply has to be able to download content, and the wait time or the picture quality depend on what’s inside the TV. A 120Hz TV consumes less power than a 240Hz TV, and a faster internal processor generally uses more energy than a slower one.

A smart TV is a different story, though. It receives and it transmits, and the more it transmits the more it impacts the power and performance requirements of the network-based communications system. This may seem negligible for one TV, but multiply that times hundreds of thousands of TVs all streaming video, uploading information about quality, speed, protocols and other TV-based information, and the relationship between power and performance becomes much more complicated. It takes longer to wait for a slow processor to communicate, and depending on the configuration of the network-based system, that could require a significant increase in power.

The Internet of Things will have a number of similar types of tradeoffs, except the universe of devices communicating back and forth will be even more diverse. That begs the question, how long should a thing wait for a communication to be completed, and how long should the receiver wait for a thing to communicate to it? All of this affects power of the device and of the system in which it operates—at least some of the time.

And we are only at the beginning stages of this next phase of development. If people can be spammed, marketed to and plagued with viruses, so can things. A refrigerator that has a digital readout that shows milk is expired can communicate brands of milk and the benefits of one brand over another. The perfect machine for an owner does only what it’s supposed to do. That maximizes efficiency.

The perfect machine for an OEM does a lot more than that, providing a potential gateway for information of all sorts, with less regard for the overall device’s efficiency, its impact on network traffic, or the total system energy consumed. Moreover, that data can be mined at any time, which is why the National Resources Defense Council issued a report back in June 2011 that DVR, cable and satellite boxes are wasting $2 billion in electricity each year.

The Internet of Things, constructed properly, can keep the incremental costs to a minimum. Done wrong, it can escalate to many times that number. And given how regulations typically lag technology by years, if not decades, it’s highly probable that more waste is on the way—with very little anyone can do about it.

—Ed Sperling