Archive for April, 2017

Smartphones: RF does not mean “Real Fire”

Monday, April 10th, 2017
RF semiconductors account for as much as $24 to $30 of the BOM on the latest smartphones, according to the Wall Street Journal. There are 695 million smartphone users in China alone. China’s younger set use their smartphones for everything, including banking and obtaining loans. However, global smartphone sales are expected to increase by 4% in 2017 (compared to 2% in 2016).
It turns out that RF semiconductors are still in hot demand for smartphones and IoT. Part of future growth in RF for smartphones will be driven by advances in wireless communication (as we move to 5G), but most phones have a chipset for 4G/LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Near-Field Communications. The iPhone 7 holds about $24 in RF chips, compared to around $16 of RF chips in an iPhone 6 manufactured two years ago. Have smartphones hit a wall with respect to new features? Have we packed everything we can pack into a smartphone? For some time now, we’ve seen new features on smartphones issued every couple of years that compel many to buy a new model. What can smartphone makers do next? They’ve packed them with features, improved displays, and manufactured waterproof smartphones. They’ve tried smartwatches, and there seems to be an app for everything. Well, almost: the earliest technology known to man is still absent on the smartphone. My son wanted to light a fire for roasting marshmallows and after he and others looked all over for matches, I absent-mindedly reached out in the dark for my smartphone, as if I could flick it like a lighter or order fire online.

The one thing that smartphone makers are not doing is supporting their older model phones. The Samsung Galaxy S4 was first introduced on March 14, 2013. In late 2016, I killed my old Samsung S4 and picked up my husband’s discarded Samsung S4. The GPS was not quite right on it, and he got a new one. I unlocked it and was irritated when apps could not be moved to the SD card. After much searching, I figured out that his phone’s OS had been updated to Android Marshmallow, for which Samsung would no longer support the SD card. The 16GB on the phone was not enough for my apps, and only photos were going to the SD card. I was not willing to go through all the steps to back up the phone, do a factory reset and re-install an Android version that was two releases prior to the current one, just to get more functionality. I conclude that smartphones will go the way of the PC; more memory and faster processors will be the first spec we look for in order to support a multitude of apps (and the requisite bloatware).

Mobile devices include a complex interaction of devices. (Adapted from Project Zero image by Gal Beniamini.)

Mobile devices include a complex interaction of devices. (Adapted from Project Zero image by Gal Beniamini.)

Maybe the next smartphone can offer superb security? (Think Volvo’s carefully built reputation for safe cars.) Turns out that most of the attention to security has been focused on the application processor when security needs to be a key consideration everywhere. Software tends to be more susceptible to hacking, and yet software and semiconductors can’t live without each other. RF SoCs with software means added vulnerability since an attack vector can be established remotely, therefore making the software visible to many. A recent example includes a compromised Wi-Fi SoC stack. Project Zero team at Google exploited a stack overflow vulnerability. Gal Beniamini of Project Zero posted a long blog on the exploitation of the Wi-Fi stack. Smartphones are miniature high-performance computers that we increasingly cannot do without as we use them for banking, payment transactions, news outlets, and as the junction for our communication with the rest of the world. I have used my smartphone to electronically sign documents in the process of buying a house. Texting a teenager to go to bed is often followed by the sound of brushing teeth. My smartphone can do just about everything…except make fire. Smartphones that can make fire tend to do so only once.

Neural Lace: The Ultimate Wearable?

Monday, April 3rd, 2017
–>Wearables have been seen as a fad, but the term itself is very broad. Is an implant a wearable? Elon Musk has apparently conceived a new company called Neuralink to pursue “neural lace” technology. Musk hasn’t made a formal announcement, and it’s not clear what his plans are for the company, but back in June 2015, Nature Nanotechnology published an article about syringe-injectable electronics, mentioning “tight integration and low chronic immunoreactivity with several distinct regions of the brain.” However, it makes me pause to think that we might someday implant what has been fantastic science fiction. Neuralink has already hired some academics to work on the project.

Figure 1: (a) Schematic of the injectable probe implanted in the brain, and (b) of the microscopic interface of the microporous nanoelectric brain probe with neural circuit. (Source: Xie, Chong, et al. “Three-dimensional macroporous nanoelectronic networks as minimally invasive brain probes.” Nature materials 14.12 (2015): 1286-1292.)

Figure 1: (a) Schematic of the injectable probe implanted in the brain, and (b) of the microscopic interface of the microporous nanoelectric brain probe with neural circuit. (Source: Xie, Chong, et al. “Three-dimensional macroporous nanoelectronic networks as minimally invasive brain probes.” Nature materials 14.12 (2015): 1286-1292.)

The military could use something like neural lace to communicate without words. You see hand gestures used when they walk point in a jungle war film, maintaining silence but issuing commands that could be monitored by wearables that transmit to a command station. One of the challenges encountered in battle is constantly changing conditions. You can plan an overall strategy around a goal, but tactics have to be carried out on the ground with decision-making on the fly. In the Korean War, had MacArthur known as fact, backed up by electronically gathered data, that American troops were indeed getting nearly overrun every night by a confirmed number of DPRK troops, maybe that would have convinced him to withdraw earlier…or not. Data is only good if verifiably gathered, interpreted correctly, and believed. There are some interesting analyses on cia.gov library, including on one “Two Strategic Mistakes in Korea, 1950.” No amount of data or statistics can overcome arrogance, however.

Wearables can also measure vibrations and indicate if an explosion has occurred nearby to command posts. Add multiple points of this kind of this data to a lack of response and you have more information to make a life-saving decision to deploy medivacs to the area. Robotic exoskeletons count as wearables, right? They would be really useful for all kinds of tasks in the military, construction, or anything involving heavy lifting. Remember the scene in Aliens where Sigourney Weaver climbs into a Caterpillar P-50000 work loader to fight off the alien queen? The flexibility, power, and speed of the work loader as she used it to throw punches leveled the playing field. You can find out more about that in the Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, complete with blueprints. It’s hard to believe that Aliens came out over 30 years ago, in 1986. People may think of wearables as a fitness band fad, but some technology started as a fad. Cameras in phones began as thumb-sized selfies. Cameras are now a critical tool for many phone apps. Digital watches were black plastic-strapped chunky wrist-jobs but still cool in the 70s. It’s rare to see someone with a regular watch these days. Ironically, if they have one, it might be a digital smartwatch that emulates an analog face. Were digital watches a fad, or a demonstration of miniaturization? Were digital watches a fad, or a demonstration of miniaturization? In any event, wearables are not going to go away. The wearables scene has included a wave of knockoffs along with the good ones, but people will always find new uses for wearable technology, never go away, but people will always find new uses for the technology, especially since “wearables” is such a broad category in the first place.