Prescription for Embedded Chips: Biotech

SAN FRANCISCO — IT systems once were limited to network devices, servers and PCs. No more.

Now everything from refrigerators to washing machines to automobiles to wristwatches is packed with connectivity to some type of Internet infrastructure thanks to embedded microprocessors. And with the development of microwatt transistors, system-on-chip (SoC), and nanoelectric technology , one major chip design firm says IT’s future is taking an inward dive right into biotechnology.

“In ten years, medical monitoring systems will have a similar impact and be a similar driver to what the mobile phone has done for our industry in the last ten years,” ARM executive chairman Sir Robin Saxby said before the crowd Wednesday at the Embedded Systems Conference here.

Focusing on opportunities for the embedded chip market, Saxby described a multitude of biomedical devices representing growth markets for the future and reiterated that patience is the number one ingredient needed to make advances and develop products of the future.

“Whatever we do, with our without this bio stuff, the embedded market will continue to grow,” said Saxby. “We enter an exciting future.”

Part of the growth, he says, is due in part to advancements in the technology with nanotech, MEMS and other new materials such as Carbon and plastic transistors entering the market.

“Processors are being embedded into everything and the design challenges are keeping pace with those changes,” Saxby said. “Of course designer productivity is a factor as well and whilst tool productivity and reuse is still the big hope for closing the gap, the changing methodology will make it difficult.”

Saxby says CMOS will still be the enabling technology and sensors are an important area. But with escalating mask charges, FAB costs and defect densities, Saxby suggests SoC may be heralding the end of the ASIC during this period.

“We need one or two breakthroughs to reach ITRS’ [International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors] goal of the billion transistor IC by 2007,” Saxby said. “Terahertz transistors on .01u are now on the horizon. EUV or extreme ultraviolet is steadily solving problems.”

The Cambridge, England-based company’s designs are in an estimated 400 million devices like PCs, handhelds, printers, scanners, satellite receivers and most cell phones.

Destination: Your Body

With a rapidly aging population, more and more biological applications are on their way Saxby says that will help embedded systems stretch the definition of SoC.

U.S. healthcare is a motivating factor. IT spending in the industry rose from $18 billion in 1998 to $25 billion in 2001. Spending on R&D is expected to be 17 percent of the healthcare industry’s budget by 2005, according to analysts.

Already Smartcards and Tablet PC with embedded systems are helping in the doctor’s office, while 3D imaging is helping surgeons better view the heart and fetuses.

As a prelude to the future, Saxby said new surgical tools like a “data knife,” which uses sensing and data gathering capabilities, are prime real estate for microprocessors. Other embedded systems devices that could be implanted into the body include a pacemaker for your brain that regulates Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy attacks; or internal Insulin pumps to control Diabetes.

And because security and identity are also on the minds of consumers, Saxby said radio frequency identification chips implanted in some animals today will be extended to humans. Already, companies like Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions with its VeriChip product offer under the skin verification that is hard to compromise.

“The challenge is, ‘do you want one?'”, Saxby said.

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