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Year in Review: AI Is Livin’ on the Edge

January 7, 2020

Author: Tom R. Halfhill

It was a year of mixed signals, and we don’t mean the analog and digital kind. In 2019, neural-network acceleration became so popular in embedded processors that it’s nearly a standard feature rather than a futuristic vision. Even some microcontrollers have added AI engines for rudimentary speech and image recognition. Machine learning is becoming a must-have at the network edge.

But while AI accelerated, autonomous vehicles hit the brakes. A few years ago, fanboys saw driverless passenger cars coming round the corner in 2020. The revised forecast is that passenger cars will surmount the uphill climb to full autonomy by 2030, although we expect autonomous commercial vehicles in the next few years.

In 2019, chip-level security gained momentum. Almost every new embedded processor and microcontroller is becoming a fortress of digital defenses. Not every embedded system needs all these features, but many do, and chips without them face declining demand.

Even as they become more powerful and secure, MCUs are hitting a memory wall. Flash memory is difficult to economically implement in geometries smaller than 40nm, so MCUs are resorting to multiple cores and faster clock speeds to boost performance without a process shrink. One vendor, NXP, broke the 40nm barrier by introducing “crossover” MCUs that omit internal flash memory. Another vendor, STMicroelectronics, replaced flash memory with nonvolatile phase-change memory in some chips.

Intel is showing another way forward by moving chiplets and 3D stacking into FPGAs and high-performance embedded processors. Its new Agilex FPGAs attach various chiplets to the programmable-logic die, adding features that are troublesome or expensive to integrate in a monolithic design. And the forthcoming “Lakefield” processor is the first to employ Intel’s Foveros technology to stack a CPU die on a south-bridge die. Both packaging technologies provide major benefits to chip suppliers and customers. It’s yet another trend that will accelerate in 2020 and beyond.

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