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Year in Review: Embedded Processors Embrace AI

January 1, 2019

Author: Tom R. Halfhill

In 2018, embedded processors and FPGAs made real progress toward integrating neural networks and machine learning. Established vendors joined the fray with lavishly funded startups from all over the globe. IoT, initially overhyped, is again surging. In 2018, vendors focused on integrating radios with microcontrollers and adopting low-bandwidth wireless standards. Problem is, there are too many standards. IoT processors are driving other trends called “Industry 4.0” and “Industrial IoT,” which introduce or update factory networks.

Costly and embarrassing data breaches continue to plague the industry, spurring more effort to strengthen security as the trouble attracts uncomfortable attention from politicians and regulatory bodies. Features such as secure boot, cryptography acceleration, side-channel defenses, and tamper resistance are appearing in new embedded-chip designs both large and small.

Autonomous-vehicle technology, a major trend in 2017, continued accelerating in 2018 despite some tragic setbacks. Uber achieved the dubious milestone of inflicting the industry’s first pedestrian fatality, and Tesla didn’t help by overselling its “Autopilot” lane guidance—with equally fatal results. Although surveys show public enthusiasm for self-driving cars is waning somewhat after these accidents, virtually all automotive manufacturers and numerous chipmakers are still racing to get their technology onto public roads and eventually into mass production.

We also saw some FPGA action in 2018. Xilinx announced its next-generation Versal chips, which are FPGA/SoC hybrids, and startup Efinix began sampling new Trion devices that employ innovative logic cells. Intel acquired eASIC to revive structured ASICs as complementary products to its FPGAs. Generally, 2018 was a good year for established vendors and startups that rode these trends. We expect some winnowing of AI and autonomous-vehicle projects in 2019 as the established players suffer some market disruption from the startups, and as some startups encounter the harsh realities of the market.

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