DesignCon 2003

Conflicting agendas create tension at DesignCon 2003

Upwards of 4000 people attended DesignCon 2003 last week in Santa Clara, CA. Sponsored by the International Engineering Consortium (IEC) and attended by individuals from a wide range of disciplines - technical sales, marketing, corporate management, high-tech investors, academics, students, working engineers, mid-level managers, self-employed consultants, industry standards advocates, thinkers, movers, shakers, and the unemployed - they came with multiple agendas and multiple gripes.

Often addressing common themes, but more often not, in panel discussions, paper presentations, plenary sessions, keynote addresses, and all-day forums, somehow they talked to each other and listened to each other, and an optimist would say that progress was made. If nothing else, they all shared a common denominator - nanotechnology. Three keynote speakers addressed lunchtime crowds on three successive days and seemed to reflect the nature of the disconnect between the various factions milling about the convention center.

Monday's address was given by Sandeep Malhotra, Vice President of Corporate and Business Development in Nanotechnology at Ardesta, a Michigan-based venture capital firm aggressively investing in small, cutting-edge technology companies. Dressed to the nines with an MBA from Harvard, an MS in chemical engineering from Cornell, and a BSCE from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, he presented a seamless, investor-to-investment-community-type of talk touching on the financial successes that have arisen out of the “exploitation of novel phenomenon in physics, chemistry, and biology” over the last 50 years, and hinted at what we might expect over the next 50 years.

His talk was embedded within the day-long NanoEngineering Forum and he gave the nod to many of those out of academia attending the forum and the lunch: “The center of disruptive technology is academia. Academia is the source of innovation.” His thesis was complex and, just as speakers at the forum argued that nanotechnology and advancements in molecular-scale computing depend on the integration of disparate disciplines such as biology, chemistry and materials science, Malhotra argued that the future of the business of nanotechnology depends on the integration of research, investment, corporate, and legal infrastructures for the protection and development of related intellectual property. He concluded by saying that nanotechnology is still a bit under the radar for the investment community, which makes it a hot prospect for his class of investor - the ones who get in early and reap rich rewards from the next generation of 800-pound gorilla.

(Monday's lunchtime companion complained, “Wall Street should not be driving innovation. Innovation should be driving Wall Street.” Point well taken - but nobody's idea ever got off the drawing board without investment. It's a crucial alliance that pays for the engineer who executes what the idea guys come up with.)

Demolition Derby

In contrast to Monday's keynoter, Chris Malachowsky, Co-Founder and Vice President for Hardware Engineering at NVidia, dressed way down on Tuesday, in very engineering casual, to give a natural-style, engineer-to-engineer-type of talk illustrated with multiple video clips from electronic games out of the last 30 years. Along with a BSEE from the University of Florida and an MSCS from Santa Clara University, he also brought his 39 patents in graphics or related technologies to the discussion, as well as years of distinguished service at HP and Sun.

Malachowsky wanted to illustrate the “visual consequences of Moore's Law” and the audience, principally engineers, sat spellbound. No matter what their age, it was clear they had spent a measurable portion of their youth parked in front of a monitor playing these games at an arcade, on a TV, or a computer screen. The evolving visuals Malachowsky presented were compelling. There's no doubt that the cars crash today with a lot more panache than they did just 15 years ago. He said pre-1987 gaming technology was based on wireframe, 1-dimensional lines, which yielded simple 2-dimensional imagery. By 1992, the technology had advanced to include shaded solids through rasterization and fragment buffering. By 2000, gaming had moved into 3-dimensional imagery that included texture mapping and anti-aliasing for smoothing feature edges. He described those years as the “heyday of Big Iron visualization systems.”

Today, Malachowsky said it's high-performance workstations that are achieving incredible levels of programmability and shading to yield up startling approximations of visual reality: “There's more stuff in the scenes. There are shadows, reflections and unrepeated background scenery.” And of course, it's Moore's Law that gets the credit. The Atari chips in 1975 had 65 thousand transistors. NVidia's latest release, the GeFORCE FX-2003 has 125 million. Malachowsky's point was obvious - nanotechnology and greater device integrations will be reflected, quite literally, in breath-taking new levels of imaging sophistication going forward. Nano Nano.

(Tuesday's lunchtime companion complained, “Certainly we've got more important things to do with integration and graphics than just gaming.” Point well taken - but gaming and entertainment are big business and they bring no small measure of pleasure to the common man.)

But as the integration increases, so do the verification challenges. Outside of Tuesday's lunch, the rest of the technical work at DesignCon - papers, panels, and plenary sessions - was serious and somber. Nanotechnology is bringing bigger chips. Bigger chips bring bigger verification problems. The ability to integrate is outpacing the ability to test and verify. Verification and test engineers are second class citizens, if they're employed at all these days - they're being labeled “design engineers” just to keep their real work hidden from management who believe it should be right the first time, every time. EDA software is not keeping up and the tool vendors are starting to acknowledge as much. They would if they could, but they can't at this juncture.

Meanwhile, it turns out nobody wants to obey Moore's Law any more, and maybe never did. It's now being characterized as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” driven by the hyperactive investment community. According to some, even Gordon Moore keeps revisiting and/or rescinding various versions of the law. Yet everybody continues to pay homage to it, and nobody can decide if that homage is an opportunity or an obligation. Some brave souls are even suggesting that there's no real economic merit in moving past the process technologies that are already up and running, no need for the additional real estate because the functionality is not in demand in today's down market. Nobody's smiling when the relentless straight line on the Moore' Law graphic, on-chip device count versus time, contrasts so starkly with the wild oscillations of the Stock Market graphic circa 1998-2003, stock valuations versus time.

Fear comes in many forms

Which brings us to Wednesday's keynote address from Ralph Cavin, Vice President for Research Operations at Semiconductor Research. With a BSEE and MSEE from Mississippi State University and a PhD from Auburn, a track record as chairman of EECS at North Carolina State University, and a life-long commitment to education and the social good that comes out of engineers and engineering, Cavin was dressed in professorial attire and addressed the lunch time crowd with sincerity and palpable optimism. He insisted that technology is a force for the good and was adamant that engineers are nothing, if not positive in their outlook. “Engineers like to solve problems,” he said, and in so doing they bring improvements to the quality of life on the planet. As hypothetical examples for applications of nanotechnology, Cavin specified organ regeneration, retinal implants, and a potential product that might allow the invalid resident of a nursing home to use a robotic wheel chair to make safe passage down a nursing home corridor.

(Wednesday' lunchtime companion complained, “Elderly nursing home residents don't need automation, they need human visitation.” Point well taken - but robotic-type systems for wheel chairs would nonetheless improve the quality of life for those with restricted mobility.)

Continuing with his message of hope, Cavin went from his lunchtime podium to moderate a panel discussion around the problems that working engineers face in keeping themselves current (and employed) while technologies and business practices change out from under them. With help from Mentor Graphics Chief Technologist Brian Bailey and Signal Consulting President Howard Johnson, the discussion ranged across many aspects of the human face of engineering.

Johnson discoursed on “why Johnny can't design a high-speed digital circuit” - digital engineers don't believe that current flows in loops and they don't believe in magnetic fields - and Bailey insisted that an engineer can make the pro-active choice not to go into sales or management - you're not a failure if you're still working as an engineer after your first 7 years in the field. Students and seasoned engineers, alike, were encouraged to take control of their own careers through active use of ongoing education resources, local ACM and IEEE chapter meetings, continuing education courses at local universities, and on-line training. Cavin, Johnson, and Bailey brought a distinctively positive note to the conversation by encouraging engineers to remember what brought them to this career in the first place - an innate curiosity in how the world works.

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