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DAC 2013: Wild ride through the mind of Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli

Comments(1)Filed under: EDA, EDA companies, DAC, Design Automation Conference, Internet of Things, semiconductors, electronics, science, security, Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, cyber, hacking, sensory swarm, biology

AUSTIN, Texas--Mobile is dead. The Swarm. Cyber-physical systems. The age of gods and man. The "Bio-Shack." EDA and embedded. Turkey designers. System resiliency. 

If you connect those dots together you end up in only one place: The mind of U.C. Berkeley professor and EDA luminary Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli.

Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, a Cadence co-founder, keynoted the last day of the 50th Design Automation Conference, taking an attentive convention center audience here along on a wild ride through the past, present and future of design, electronics and biological.

His bottom line was "the world is presenting us with tons of opportunities," but getting there requires a seatbelt, steady nerves and laser focus.

"I claim computers and mobiles are going to disappear," he said, prompting crowd murmurs.

"We are going to have a gazillion devices that are going to instrument the world. So we will not need any longer devices on our self, like cell phones and laptops," Sangiovanni-Vincentelli argued.

Enter the swarm

Instead, what is emerging is a sensory swarm of these "gazillion" devices capturing and communicating data into the cloud, immersing people into the world of electronics, rather than the other way around. (Here's a useful overview of Berkeley's TerraSwarm Research Center).

He pointed to the various "smart" applications that have taken hold in recent years from the smart grid, to water, to cars, to homes. Sangiovanni-Vincentelli then veered down a side street, throwing up a slide (pictured nearby) that compared humans to ants. Humans and ants each make up about the same amount of the terrestrial biomass (10-15 percent), but ants have fewer neurons per "node" but have been around longer. It's easier to make ants than humans, he noted.

Thus the swarms Sangiovanni-Vincentelli envisions will be more like ants than humans, which has its positive impact: "Large numbers imply resiliency of system."

But those large numbers in the sensory swarm also increase risk by opening up countless nodes for security breaches, Sangiovanni-Vincentelli said.

At the same time, he countered, the large numbers within the swarm can also be used to more effectively fight security hacks through approaches such as differential privacy.

Early days

This sensory swarm's early incarnation is now called the Internet of things, which Sangiovanni-Vincentelli described as a "tiny step toward the future."

On another path into the future, cyber-physical systems are taking advantage of Moore's Law to open the possibility of brain implants that help overcome paralysis by bypassing the damaged nerves in the spine and connecting to the healthy ones.

Work in synthetic biology is enabling scientists to form new ways to combat disease, such as malaria. And we're nearing the dawn of an age in which RadioShack will be replaced by "BioShack," where you buy and assemble the right pieces of DNA to make a complete biological solution, he argued.

Enormous complexity, risk, opportunity

"The ensemble is a function; no more a single device as a function. It's a collection of devices that give you a particular function," he said. "The function determined by the availability of what? By sensing, actuating, computing, storage and energy."

"What we have is a humongous network, distributed, adaptable, hierarchical, hybrid control system. That's a very complicated problem."

And today, we're not handling our existing complicated systems very well (think Boeing Dreamliner battery and electric vehicle challenges, or automotive recalls, or electrical grid breaks or Apple maps challenges). He said:

"We think about this fantastic future, but we don't know how to do designs for systems we have to deal with today," he said, adding, "The value of being right and the cost of being wrong have never been greater."

Science, methods, turkeys

But Sangiovanni-Vincentelli argued that the EDA industry is in a prime position to serve these emerging design areas because it's about fundamentals and methodology.

Fundamentals in that EDA and electronics are about science, and  "Science means you look at what you observe and abstract what is fundamental."

Methodology in that the way the EDA defines methodology applies well to the complex world of, say, cyber-physical systems or biological synethsis.

Sangiovanni-Vincentelli went on:

"The big thing the industry's done is methodologies. And methodologies in my view is to be free from choice. You limit the designs. You don't let the turkey designer do whatever he wants."

So in designing, say bacteria, a team of scientists would decide the functionality, specify the composition of devices and system constraints, design variations of the concept and then implement.

"This is the same as IC design," Sangiovanni-Vincentelli said.

As Sangiovanni-Vincentelli's wild ride--which began with a reference to his famous age of gods and men presentation--came back into the station, he said:

"Our bag of tricks is relevant to all of these domains. That's what the world is presenting us with, tons of opportunities."

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