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Cybernetic Human Via Wearable IOT

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

UC Berkeley’s Dr. Rabaey sees humans becoming an extension of the wearable IoT via neuron connectivity at recent IEEE IMS event.

by Hamilton Carter and John Blyler, Editors, JB Systems

During the third week in May, more than 3000 microwave engineers from across the globe descended upon San Francisco for the International Microwave Symposium 2016. To close the week, it seemed only fitting then that the final plenary talk by Jan Rabaey was titled “The Human Intranet- Where Swarms and Humans Meet.”


Dr. Rabaey, Professor and EE Division Chair at UC Berkeley, took the stage wearing a black T-shirt, a pair of slacks, and a sports coat that shimmered under the bright stage lights. He briefly summarized the topic of his talk, as well as his research goal: turning humans themselves into the next extension of the IoT. Ultimately he hopes to be able to create human-machine interfaces that could ideally not only read individual neurons, but write them as well.

What Makes a Wearable Wearable?

The talk opened with a brief discourse on the inability thus far of wearables to capture the public’s imagination. Dr. Rabaey cited several key problems facing the technology: battery life; how wearable a device actually is; limited functionality; inability to hold user interest; and perhaps most importantly something he termed stove-piping. Wearable technologies today are built to communicate only with other devices manufactured by the same company. Dr. Rabaey called for an open wearables platform to enable the industry to expand at an increasing rate.

Departing from wearables to discuss an internet technology that almost everyone does use, Dr. Rabaey focused for a few moments on the smart phone. He emphasized that while the devices are useful, the bandwidth of the communications channel between the device, and its human owner is debilitatingly narrow. His proposal for remedying this issue is not to further enhance the smart phone, but instead to enhance the human user!

One way to enhance the bandwidth between device and user is simply to provide more input channels. Rabaey discussed one project, already in the works, that utilizes Braille-like technology to turn skin into a tactile interface, and another project for the visually-impaired that aims to transmit visual images to the brain over aural channels via sonification.

Human limbs as prosthetics

As another powerful example of what has already been achieved in human extensibility, Dr. Rabaey, showed a video produced by the scientific journal “Nature” portraying research that has enabled quadriplegic Ian Burkhart to regain control of the muscles in his arms and hands. The video showed Mr. Burkhart playing Guitar Hero, and gripping other objects with his own hands; hands that he lost the use of five years ago. The system that enables his motor control utilizes a sensor to scan the neurons firing in his brain as researchers show him images of a hand closing around various objects. After a period of training and offline data analysis, a bank of computers learns to associate his neural patterns with his desire to close his hand. Finally, sensing the motions he would like to make, the computers fire electro-constricting arm bands that cause the correct muscles in his arm to flex and close his hand around an object. (See video: “The nerve bypass: how to move a paralysed hand“)

Human Enhancements Inside and Out

Rabaey divides human-enhancing tech into two categories, extrospective, applications, like those described above, that interface the enhanced human to the outside world, and introspective applications that look inwards to provide more information about enhanced humans themselves. Turning his focus to introspective applications, Rabaey presented several examples of existing bio-sensor technology including printed blood oximetry sensors, wound healing bandages, and thin-film EEGs. He then described the technology that will enable his vision of the human intranet: neural dust.

The Human Intranet

In 1997, Kris Pister outlined his vision for something called smart dust, one cubic millimeter devices that contained sensors, a processor, and networked communications. Pister’s vision was recently realized by the Michigan Micro Mote research team. Rabaey’s, proposed neural dust would take this technology a step further providing smart dust systems that measure a mere 10 to 100 microns on a side. At these dimensions, the devices could travel within the human blood stream. Dr. Rabaey described his proposed human intranet as consisting of a network fabric of neural dust particles that communicate with one or more wearable network hubs. The headband/bracelet/necklace-borne hub devices would handle the more heavy-duty communication, and processing tasks of the system, while the neural dust would provide real-time data measured on-site from within the body. The key challenge to enabling neural dust at this point lies in determining a communications channel that can deliver the data from inside the human body at real-time speeds while consuming very little power, (think picowatts).

Caution for the future

In closing, Dr. Jan implored the audience, that in all human/computer interface devices, security must be considered at the onset, and throughout the development cycle. He pointed out that internal defibrillators with wireless controls can be hacked, and therefore, could be used to kill a human who uses one. While this fortunately has never occurred, he emphasized that since the possibility exists it is key to encrypt every packet of information related to the human body. While encryption might be power-hungry in software, he stated that encryption algorithms build into ASICs could be performed at a fraction of the power cost. As for passwords, there are any number of unique biometric indicators that can be used. Among these are voice, and heart-rate. The danger for these bio-metrics, however, is that once they can be cloned, or imitated, the hacker has access to a treasure-trove of information, and possibly control. Perhaps the most promising biometric at present is a scan of neurons via EEG or other technology so that as the user thinks of a new password, the machine interface can pick it up instantly, and incorporates it into new transmissions.

Wrapping up his exciting vision of a bright cybernetic future, Rabaey grounded the audience with a quote made by Joanna Zylinska, an Australian performance artist, in a 2002 interview:

“The body has always been a prosthetic body. Ever since we developed as humanoids and developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators. We have become creatures that construct tools, artifacts, and machines. We’ve always been augmented by our instruments, our technologies. Technology is what constructs our humanity. …, so to consider technology as a kind of alien other that happens upon us at the end of the millennium is rather simplistic.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wearable electronics; Semiconductor expertise destroys bacteria; Top IP scorer; Trolls don’t help inventors

Friday, July 6th, 2012

So much came to light this week that I can only offer a sampling from each topic.

You’d expect the July 4th holiday week to be a bit slow on the technology announcement side. That wasn’t the case this year for the world of semiconductor intellectual property (IP). Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye:

1. Simple Process Turns T- Shirt into a Super-capacitor: The clever researchers at the University of South Carolina (USC), led by mechanical engineering professor Xiaodong Li, have developed an easy way to turn a cotton t-shirt into a super-capacitor. Such a device (shirt?) makes the textile itself into a battery for mobile electronics.

Concept model for wearable electronics circa 2005.

A shirt can act as the battery. We already know how to create low-power nano-technology processor andmemory devices from organic materials. Perhaps wearable electronics will now go mainstream. Such consumer products would open up a whole new market for semiconductor IP – especially since the main drivers remain low cost, high volume and short time-to-market.

2. Many EDA-IP tool companies are banking on the idea that the methodologies and techniques created in the semiconductor industry can be applied to other markets, such as medical. I’ve covered some examples of this approach in the past. But here’s a more direct example!

IBM researchers have produced Staphylococcus-killing polymers that leave healthy cells alone. Staph bacteria are especially troublesome since it is not killed by ordinary antibiotics. IBM chemists have drawn from,  “years of expertise in semiconductor technology and material discovery to crack the code for safely destroying the bacteria.”

3. An Ocean Tomo market study confirms that the U.S. has transitioned to an innovation based economy founded upon intellectual property (IP). The report states that eighty percent (80%) of company value is comprised of intangible assets.

A related study – using an Ocean Tomo index – list the top inventor in the semiconductor community as Charles W.C.Lin, chairman and founder of Bridge Semiconductor. One of Lin’s many patents deals with a method for making a semiconductor chip assembly with a press-fit ground plan.

At first glance, it appears that a better path for inventors is through the corporate, rather than university, patent process. To see what I mean, contrast Lin’s standing with one of the discoverers of Graphene (see earlier blog).

4. Another study shows that patent trolls cost the economy $29 billion yearly!

A while back, I wrote how patent enforcers (trolls) argue that they, “help ensure that inventors get paid for their creations, whether through the direct application of their inventions, by lawsuits to collect unpaid royalties or by licensing agreements.”

This report demonstrates the opposite, namely, that patent trolls don’t help inventors. The report examined financial results from 12 publicly traded NPE firms, and found that, “the payments they make to inventors whose patents they acquire are far smaller than the costs they have on defendant companies.”

I encourage everyone to read this excellent, if not rather depressing, write-up. Money that could have been used for innovation is being redistributed to patent trolls and other “unknowns” at a staggering cost.


Originally posted on “IP Insider.”

What do Medical Devices, Facial Recognition, Genivi, and Clustering Processors have in Common?

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

All of these very cool technologies – showcased by Intel’s ECA partners at IDF2011 – provide a clear direction for future trends in medical, consumer and automotive electronics.

Let’s start with the cluster controller and backplane technology.

Designers that require blazingly fast backplane buses are happy to see the development of PCI Express, Generation 3 products.  The latest version of the popular interface will provide an impressive eight gigabits per second (Gbits/s) per lane and 128 Gbit/s in designs using x16 port widths. Such performance will be welcomed in the enterprise computing, storage and communications spaces.

IDT demonstrated its latest high-performance PCIe switches alongside  re-timing devices for longer distance application. Ken Curt, Sr. Product Marketing Manager of Enterprise Computing Division at IDT, gave me the one-minute demonstration tour:

“Here are our newly announced Gen3 packet-switch devices. In this demonstration (see Figure 1), we are using a Gen2 server since we can not get a Gen3 server. The Gen2 signal comes out over cable to go into our packet switch which does a rates conversion from 5Gbits to 8Gbits per sec. The 8Gbit/sec signal – 8 lanes in parallel – is sent to a Gen3 Sata-SAS controller card from LSI logic.”

“Also, we are tapping off to a LeCroy bus analyzer (not shown) to verify that we are running 8Gb/s across 8 lanes. Further, we are showing our Eye-diagram capability to see the waveform inside of our chip and optimize the signal configuration.

“For longer traces and longer cables, we also provide PCI Express Gen3 re-timing devices, which will easily extend across 30 inches of trace or backplane.”

Short, sweet and too the point. Great demo, Ken!  

Figure 1: Ken Curt from IDT demonstrations a PCI Express Gen3 (converted from Gen2) data storage application at IDF2011.


Turning from data storage and cloud computing backplane technology, let’s now take a brief look at the medical space.

Embedded and mobile software vendor Wind River introduced a new platform for medical device development at the show. The platform, built on the company’s real-time operating system (RTOS), includes a collection of embedded software development tools, networking and middleware run-time technologies, such as IPsec, SSL, IPv6 and USB.

Having a platform is great, but experiencing the end-product is even better (see Figure 2). Automated “cuff” blood pressuring measuring devices are nothing new. What is new is having such automated devices meet stringent vendor qualification summary (VQS) processes – which is part of the company’s development platform.

Equally important to accurate monitoring of ones’ blood pressure is displaying the information in a user-friendly format (see Figure 3). This is accomplished through a collection of development tools known as the Tilcon Graphics Suite. Products such as these are sure to find a place in the booming home-care market, as well as in hospitals and the like.

Figure 2: The Wind River folks have a great bedside manner.

Figure 3: Apparently, I’m a somewhat overweight woman with higher than normal blood pressure. Well, that’s good to know.


Moving on – Let’s look at the world of intelligent displays.

Emerson Networks had a great demonstration of facial recognition applications for intelligent kiosks. I believe this kiosk was running the KR8-315, a fanless embedded computer based on the Atom E640 processor running at 1.0 GHz with 1GB DDR2 and a 64GB Solid State Drive.

Figure 4: Note the “Viewer Count” and “Majority Gender” in the bottom part of the display panel. The next figure shows how these numbers are derived via facial recognition technology.


Figure 5: Facial recognition is used to determine “Viewer Count” and “Majority Gender.” That is Connie Schultejans from Emerson in the background.


Changing direction – Let’s now move to the automotive market.

Mentor Graphics is a member of the GENIVI alliance , a non-profit industry alliance for the adoption of an In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) reference platform. After the recent relationship cool-off with mobile phone giant Nokia, Intel has repositioned (or re-emphasized) it MeeGo operating system platform within GENIVI. (see, “ATOM Leader Leaves Intel”)

In addition to MeeGo, Mentor also offers a complete Android-platform development environment. All of these operating systems, including Mentor’s Embedded Linux, run on Atom processors – among others. A tool suite known as Inflexion is used to create the impressive user interfaces (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Supporting the GENINI In-Vehicle Infotainment market, Mentor Graphics offers user interface development tools that operate on MeeGo, Android and Linux system running on Intel Atom processors.

ASIC Prototypers Target Specific Markets

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Even now, chip companies are taking their best guess at which markets will experience sizable growth in the near future. These “guesses” are reflected in the types of ASIC projects that today’s designers are architecting today with virtual prototypes for software and FPGAs for hardware.

What are these markets? Our recent survey data (see Figure) indicates that FPGA-based prototyping of ASICs are focused on the following market segments:

  • Embedded
  • Wireless networking
  • All areas of consumer electronics (video, audio, games)
  • Medical and industrial

Figure: Comparisons between a 2008 versus a 2009 survey show growth potential in both medical and industrial chip markets.

Figure: Comparisons between a 2008 versus a 2009 survey show growth potential in both medical and industrial chip markets.

These trends complement early observations about future growth in the semiconductor market: “Semiconductor Growth – When and Where?“  But these trends go further by highlighting the growing importance of both the medical and industrial business segments.

What role will EDA play in these markets? Clues to answer that question may come from an ongoing “EDA Tools and Technology” survey, which I’ll report on later.