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Researcher Eyes 'Ambient Intelligence'

An executive at a European research group told conference attendees this week of his goal: "secure, trustworthy computers and communications that are in everything and everybody." This could include everything from smart homes and automobiles to personal assistants and insulin sensors.
Both power efficiency and flexibility are required, Lauwereins said. One way to provide both is "software washing," which involves changing the way software uses memory so it's more power efficient. IMEC has ongoing research in this area and has spun out a company, PowerEscape, with some of the results.

Also important, Lauwereins said, is exploiting parallelism, which can reduce the clock frequency and the power supply voltage dramatically. "To parallelize and map a sequential program onto a parallel system you need tools, but these do not exist yet," he noted. The need is urgent, he suggested, given that multi-core systems might have 10 to 20 processing devices now, and over 100 in the near future.

Lauwereins described an IMEC processor extension built around a tightly-coupled VLIW matrix that exploits both loop-level and instruction-level parallelism. It has been applied to software-defined radio and multi-media processing. "Most importantly, we start with C code and compile into an architectural template," he said. "No VHDL or Verilog; it's much more flexible."

IMEC is also working with technology that can make memories run faster or slower at run time, using arrays of buffers. A controller can select memories that run in fast or slow modes. This provides faster speeds and a power reduction compared to a worst-case statistical approach, Lauwereins said.

The "more than Moore" approach can open the door to new classes of devices, Lauwereins said. One example might be a flexible, implanted device that senses the level of insulin in the blood and can communicate to a wireless pump when more is needed.

Lauwereins said IMEC has developed a 3D sensor platform that includes power generation, sensing, computation at 20 million operations per second, power consumption of 100 microwatts, and wireless capability up to two meters, all at a very low cost. He envisioned grid networks composed of smart sensors.

Other IMEC work includes wafer-level packaging that can place an inductor on top of passive silicon, and a live neuron placed on top of silicon. "We can fire the neuron from the electronics, or detect from the electronics whether the neuron is fired," Lauwereins said.

The real way to convert "ambient intelligent" dreams to reality, Lauwereins concluded, is by mastering complexity. That will allow systems-on-chip with hundreds of devices and "large, clean applications" that can be mapped into them, he said.