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Seven Engineers on the Future of Electrical Engineering

The Circuit Cellar staff thought it would be interesting to kick off 2015 by asking several long-time contributors about the future of electrical engineering and embedded systems. Here we present the responses we received to the following questions: What are your thoughts on the future of electrical engineering? What excites you? Is there something in your particular field of interest that you think will be a “game changer”?

STEVE CIARCIA: Frankly speaking, if I was smart enough to accurately predict the future, I wouldn’t be doing all this again. Seriously, “What excites me in the future?” shouldn’t be the question I’m answering here. Instead, it should be  how much does all this embedded stuff we’re seeing and talking about today look like a classic case of déją vu to me. Circuit Cellar started 40 years ago in BYTE to promote my enthusiasm for professional-level DIY computer applications (albeit mostly embedded). The names have changed to Maker this and that and Raspberry Pi whatever, but what once was, still is. Solder fumes aside, Circuit Cellar has always been about nurturing the talented engineer who designs the game changer. (Steve is an electrical engineer who founded Circuit Cellar in 1988.)

DAVID TWEED: Embedded technology is becoming more pervasive, appearing in more and more places in our lives. Embedded processors have become as powerful as desktop machines were just a few short years ago, and the their ability to connect to the world at large through high-bandwidth wireless communications has grown to match this. This is both exciting and scary, because it becomes a powerful enabler for both positive and negative changes in how we live our lives. Take the ubiquitous “smart phone” as an example. It can process two-way audio, video, GPS data, and an Internet connection simultaneously in real time. This enables powerful applications such as GPS-based route finding that can give you verbal and pictorial directions to get you where you want to go. But, as anyone who watches the popular crime drama N.C.I.S. knows, that same technology can be used to track your phone’s location, along with everything it can “see” and “hear,” including the phone calls you have made. While that kind of surveillance can be used it positive ways, such as to aid you in an emergency, it can also be used to invade your privacy. Can you really be sure that everyone in law enforcement and other areas of government has only your best interests in mind when accessing your data? The increased power of embedded systems means that autonomous mechanisms gain capabilities they didn’t have before. Fully-autonomous vehicles—cars, trucks, trains, and aircraft—will be able to carry people and goods long distances over arbitrary routes. Factory automation will become more generic, because complex general-purpose mechanisms will be as easy to use as purpose-built mechanisms that only do one thing, because the software will manage all of the low-level details of “training” the system. Machine vision will be an important part of this, giving the system the feedback it needs to interact with objects and people. “With great power comes great responsibility.” This has never been more true. I’m excited by the possibilities that increasingly powerful embedded technology will open up for us, but let’s make sure that it is used responsibly! (David is a professional electrical engineer and long-time Circuit Cellar author and technical editor.)

ROBERT LACOSTE: I think the most significant change in embedded systems these last years is the nearly mandatory inclusion of Internet connectivity. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). Just enter those three words in Google and the 752 million results you get will show it’s a quite hot topic. When a customer meets with us to discuss a potential new product (whatever it is), the question is no longer: “Should it be connected?” The question is: “How should it be connected?” Having said that, the key difficulty is the long list of wireless protocols trying to become the ubiquitous solution for IoT: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee, Zwave, 6LowPan, and a hundred others. Bluetooth seems the clear winner for smartphone-based products, but what about the other applications like home automation, logistics, smart metering, or dog tracking? Which protocol(s) will be the winner(s)? Which one will be natively supported on our Internet access gateways or even rolled-out worldwide? Will it be Thread, sponsored by Google itself? Or will it be another derivative of Bluetooth, due to its huge predominance? (The overall sales of Bluetooth-capable chips already exceed four times the human population on earth.) Or could it be one of the machine-to-machine variants of 3G/4G cellular standards being studied? Or perhaps it will be one of the solutions proposed by one of the many startups working on the technology? Or maybe it will be a completely new protocol that we’ll invent? I don’t know the answer, but the result will be the next game changer! (Robert is an electrical engineer and Circuit Cellar columnist. In 2003, he founded ALCIOM, an electrical engineering firm near Paris, France.)

CHRIS COULSTON: While tech will companies continue to evolve existing technologies to offer more features, with lower power and at a lower cost, I think that the most exciting and revolutionary technology is to be found in the Internet of Everything (IOE) concept. Hardware supporting the IOE offers up the tantalizing potential to free our designs from physical interconnects, giving our designs world wide access, allowing us to interact with our designs in real time, and allowing our design to access the almost unlimited diversity of services available on the Internet. I am excited to explore a design space that enables me to connect something trivial like my key-ring to the Internet. The Raspberry Pi was the first breakthrough with companies like Intel redefining the cutting edge with their Edison module. There are several limiters to the IOE concept including power consumption and standardization. As these issues are addressed, the potential of the IOE concept will only be limited to the creativity of engineers and makers everywhere. (Chris is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Penn State, Behrend. He’s also technical reviewer for Circuit Cellar.)

GEORGE NOVACEK: Embedded controllers are essential components of automatic systems. Without  automation, many products could not even be manufactured. Machines, such as aircraft, medical equipment, power generators, etc. could not be operated without the assistance of smart control systems. Until some, not yet invented, technology makes electronics obsolete, the future of embedded controllers will remain bright. In the coming years, more and more engineers will be focusing on system design, while only the brightest ones will be developing microelectronic components for those systems—more sophisticated, more integrated, faster, smaller, hardened to environment, consuming less power. There continues to be a trend towards universal embedded controllers. These, equipped with the appropriate sensors and actuators and loaded with a particular application software, could be used for fly-by-wire, or for control of an industrial machinery or just about everything else. Design engineers need to be cautious not to put powerful, yet inexpensive controllers into new products just because it  can be done. There is already a proliferation of simple  consumer products equipped, without any sensible need, with microcontrollers. This often leads to lower reliability, shorter life and, because these products are usually not repairable, to greater cost of ownership and waste. (George is professional engineer and Circuit Cellar columnist who served as president of a multinational manufacturer of embedded control systems for aerospace applications.)

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ED NISLEY: The rise of the Maker Movement changes everything in the embedded systems field: Makers take control over the devices in their lives, generally by repurposing embedded hardware in ways its designers never intended. The trend becomes clear when dirt-cheap USB TV tuners become software defined radios. Embedded systems must eventually sprout exposed (and documented!) interfaces, debugging hooks, and protocols, because collaboration with Makers who want to turn the box inside-out and build something better can enrich our world beyond measure. Excluding those people won’t work over the long term: just as DRM-encumbered music became unacceptable, welded-shut embedded systems will become historic curiosities. You can make it so! (Ed is an electrical engineer and long-time Circuit Cellar columnist and contributor.)

KEN DAVIDSON: Twenty-five years ago, while developing the Circuit Cellar Home Control System (HCS) II, our group created a series of interface boards that could be placed around the house and communicate using RS-485. Tons of discrete wire running throughout buildings was the norm at the time, and the idea of running just a single twisted pair between units was novel and exciting. This all predated inexpensive Ethernet and public Internet. Today, such distributed intelligence has only gotten better, smaller, and cheaper. With the Internet of Things (IoT) everybody is talking about, it’s not unusual to find a wireless interface and embedded intelligence right down to the level of a light bulb. There was an episode of The Big Bang Theory where the guys set up the apartment lights so they could be controlled from anywhere in the world. Everyone got a laugh when the “geeks” were excited when someone from Japan was blinking their lights. But the idea of such embedded intelligence and remote access continuing to evolve and improve truly is exciting. I look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when such control is commonplace to most people and not just a geeky novelty. (Ken is an embedded software engineer who has been contributing to Circuit Cellar for years as an author and editor.)

These responses appear in Circuit Cellar 294 (January 2015).


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Circuit Cellar's editorial team comprises professional engineers, technical editors, and digital media specialists. You can reach the Editorial Department at [email protected], @circuitcellar, and facebook.com/circuitcellar