System Design Enabling The Human Intranet

Wearables are just a stepping stone toward a much bigger trend that has broad implications for society.


Against the always-impressive backdrop of the French Alps, DATE took place earlier this month in Grenoble. DATE has quietly transformed from a European version of DAC into a very interesting technical conference with some very high-caliber attendees. This year, I had the pleasure to participate as session chair for the design tools section, themed “Designing Electronics for the Internet of Things (IoT)“. It turned out to be a very fascinating and inspiring day!

The morning kicked off with application-specific sessions outlining the IoT-related trends in specific application domains like healthcare, automotive, and smart cities. The talk by Levent Guergen from CEA/LETI on smart cities made it clear how impactful the IoT can be. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, urban population percentage exceeds 75% in Europe, and get this, on 2% of the earth’s surface, cities use 75% of the world resources. Ouch. Time to optimize, especially given that over the next four decades urban areas are expected to absorb all the population growth while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population. Levent described what is going on in 4 pilot projects in Santander, Fujisawa, Genova and Mitaka in participatory sensing, context awareness control as well as safety, emergency and health management. On my next trip to Japan, I will definitely visit Fujisawa, where, as a fun example, you can get coupons for local business depending on your degree of smile!☺

The second session opened with Jan Rabaey—always an inspiring speaker—presenting on “The Human Intranet: Where Swarms and Humans Meet”. He recently published a related paper with the same title in IEEE Transactions on Pervasive Computing. Jan pointed out that the IoT is “finally happening”—reusing a slide from ASPDAC 2008 in which he predicted that eventually “every object will have a wireless connection, hence leading to trillions of connected devices”. However, he was fast to add that an essential component is missing in a lot of the discussions—focusing his talk on the role of humans and asking how to interact with information in a world where enriched senses and augmented interfaces are omnipresent. He used the term “Unpad”, predicting that mobiles eventually may disappear or unravel and be replaced by a collaboration between the environment and wearables.

Given that the wearable era has come with devices like Google lens, Google glass, Fitbit, and the Apple watch, he called it a “stove-piped vision” and only being the start. Jan offered as the eventual alternative the “Human Intranet” as an open, scalable platform “seamlessly integrating the ever-increasing number of sensor, actuation, computation, storage, communication, and energy nodes located around, on, or in a human body”. These will be “acting in symbiosis with functions provided by the body itself, fundamentally altering ways humans operate and interact with the physical world around them and the cyber world beyond, ultimately embracing the swarm and internet visions”.

Are you concerned yet? Well, Figure 4 in Jan’s article (I took a photograph from his presentation, see below) shows a human intranet example configuration. A wrist-worn control unit interacts with a neural recording unit connected to the nervous system and sensor patches in the body connected via sensor interrogation nodes. On the control side, actuator units are controlled both by neural feedback and the wrist-worn control unit. As farfetched as this may sound on first read, the work Kurzweil describes in “The Singularity Is Near” and in the associated documentary “Transcendent Man” already shows part of the human intranet. On a personal note, I know one of the 200,000+ humans with cochlear implants to help with hearing loss and am very grateful what this does to my ability to communicate with him. We are closer to this than it at first appears.

Image courtesy of Jan Rabaey.

Working on the tools side of the fence, I am of course interested how to design these systems. Jan outlined four challenges: energy sparsity, dynamically changing conditions, the ability to retain basic or partial functionality under all circumstances, and security/privacy. All are issues we are dealing with every day using the System Development Suite—low-power modeling of the system environment to verify/validate a design as well as functional correctness.

To dig deeper into these issues, I had organized a session on design tools for the IoT. First we talked about debug—for all areas of the IoT from the edge node, through the hub to the network and the servers in the cloud, comprehensive debug is a key requirements. I outlined some of the different debug options pre- and post-silicon, supporting what we have started calling in the industry the “shift left” to enable earlier hardware and software integration.

Then Marco Bekooij from NXP outlined the design challenges of WLAN for connected cars, eventually enabling intelligent traffic systems with better safety and fewer accidents, increased mobility with fewer travel delays, and reduced waste of fuel to help the environment. Marco described the development of the module as well as the substantial software challenges to satisfy throughput and latency constraints, along with some of the language and tools they used to overcome them.

Remy Pottier, Director of Strategy for ARM’s IoT business unit, described how ARM found out the hard way how complex even the software on the edge node device can become, including all the connections to the next server, when designing a sensing, connected coffee machine for their break room. This was the birth of the mBed IoT Device Platform combining the mBed OS dealing with little data and the mBed Device Server connecting into the Big Data world of analysis. mBed and Sensinode are already used by 90,000+ developers in 9,000 projects with 1M+ builds per year and more than 45 official mBed boards. Quite impressive!

The session closed with Cadence’s Ian Dennison with a presentation focused on Mixed-Signal Development as part of our System Design Enablement strategy. Ian detailed four aspects, starting (1) with microcontroller and software development, integrating Cadence tool chains with partners tools from ARM and Coventor; followed (2) by sensor aspects and MEMS+ analog simulation in a closed loop; (3) radio development with Allegro PCB and SiP RF Layout and the Virtuoso Analog Design Environment and the Virtuoso Layout Suite; and (4) ultra-low power design with Spectre, Incisive, Virtuoso and Encounter platforms as well as the System Development Suite for firmware development and verification.

Overall, it was a very inspiring day at DATE on electronics design for IoT. As Jan Rabaey concluded in his presentation, when (not if) we really go beyond the current wearable trends towards what he calls the human intranet, the resulting broader societal discussions will be fascinating. Jan recommended as suggested reading Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star—I have put it on my reading list!

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