Can Chips Make You A Better Person?

Editor’s Note: I included this story, along with the other two bearing this date, October 14 (Open Architecture vs. Open Standard; Qualifying Technology) not because I thought they were particularly brilliant journalism, but because they bore datelines from three different countries — one from entirely separate continent — all in the same issue. Pretty cool, no? I doubt I’ll ever win a Pulitzer, but at least I can lay claim to this.

R&D Consortium Seeks Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Realize the Future

LEUVEN, Belgium — Here in Flanders, the crossroads of Europe, researchers envision electronics improving human existence in a tailored, non-invasive way — far more than a few steps beyond ergonomic keyboards.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!“Ambient intelligence … where people don’t have to adapt to the electronics, the electronics adapt to us,” said Rudy Lauwerens, VP of design technology for integrating information and communications systems for IMEC.

The propeller heads here at IMEC are taking a cross-disciplinary approach that includes MEMS, software, and semiconductor technology to make wearable—and in some cases implantable—wireless computing devices with virtual interfaces and distributed transducers a reality. The Belgians have dubbed this approach the M4 initiative.

Forget about your PDA. Think WDA, as in wearable digital assistant. Forget about LANs or even WLANs. IMEC wants to give you WBANS, or wireless body-area networks utilizing implanted sensors that can take direct measurements of body chemistry. IMEC’s R&D wizards have dubbed this initiative Human++.

These may sound like lofty goals, and granted, these technologies were the stuff of science fiction a few short years ago. But the scientists here at this R&D consortium believe they, along with their partners in industry, can manifest these dreams by the end of the decade.

Of course it’s going to take a lot of hard science and hard work in the fab to make implants that can monitor a diabetic person’s blood and inject insulin or glucose automatically when needed as well as periodically upload data for a doctor’s review. But these implants also could allow coaches of Olympic athletes to monitor blood oxygen and lactate content while an athlete trains on the playing field—not in the lab.

“We are far from the power we need for ambient intelligence,” said Lauwerens, who spoke to members of the technology trade press gathered here for IMEC’s annual update on its avenues of research. “Today is the time to start solving the roadblocks for these kinds of systems.”

These roadblocks are more familiar to those in the trenches concerned with the day-to-day mundane task of getting working devices out the fab doors. To make these dreams reality is going to require gigahertz RF and mixed-signal bandwidths on small, inexpensive chips or packages.

Thus, IMEC says it is turning to its semiconductor and related technology partners to get these ideas out of the think tank and into the R&D fab, and eventually onto the production fab floor. It means bringing companies into several avenues of research at once. “We allow companies to join us in cross-disciplinary research,” Lauwerens said.

It is a role that IMEC says it is suited to play. Unlike other collaborative R&D efforts, IMEC’s private funding, which accounts for about two-thirds of its budget, is not intended for specific programs designed to benefit certain member companies and market segments — rather it is consortium-based, meaning participating companies’ funds are pooled for group efforts.

This makes IMEC the ideal forum to bridge the gap between applied microelectronics and complex systems design, said Liesbeth Van der Perre, program director of multimode multimedia for IMEC. “This is somewhere we can take the risk and have the advantage in IMEC,” she said.

Having devices that can adapt to the user means developing reconfigurable hardware and software systems that make today’s embedded software and ASICs look like Tinker Toys.

Of course the future doesn’t invent itself. It requires a lot of hard work and R&D, which eventually translate into applicable, everyday process technology. IMEC appears not to be neglecting this even as it dreams big.

The same day it unveiled its M4 and Human++ cross-disciplinary research initiatives, IMEC announced plans for a 300mm research foundry that it wants to bring online in 2004. IMEC is looking to stay two steps ahead of the industry and work on the 45nm node and beyond.

IMEC's research food chain.

“The problem we’re faced with is we have to make this affordable,” said Luc Van den hove, VP of silicon process and device technology at IMEC. And not only are ASPs going down, but the cost of development is going up, a la the several billion dollars it costs to construct a 300mm fab.

The obvious conclusion for chipmakers and suppliers alike is to partner with one another to benefit from mutually conducted research, Van den hove said. “We believe by combining the interests … we can create required synergy that is needed … and share the costs,” he said.

The 300mm R&D foundry will focus on developing specific process modules for advanced technology nodes and will be a single-wafer fab. But it also will compare experiments between certain batch and single-wafer processes. Its goal is to develop complete single-wafer processes, and it will follow IMEC’s current model of specializing strictly in R&D.

There currently are no plans to produce any production wafers for its member companies, Van den hove said.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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