Circuit Cellar recently sat down with several professors, engineers and one master’s student to discuss the fields of computer applications and embedded hardware and software.
Q&A: Embedded Today
Ayse Kivilcim Coskun
Assistant Professor | Boston University | Boston, MA, USA
Tell us about your research.
My main research area is energy efficient computing. I work in the general area of computer engineering, with specific focus on embedded systems, computer architecture, design automation, and software.
What do you say when a non-engineer asks: “What is a microcontroller? Is it the chip in my PC?”
A microcontroller is a chip that is designed to perform a small, restricted set of tasks. Some examples would be a chip that controls the settings of a microwave oven, a chip that controls an automated gate in a parking lot, or a chip that controls the ABS in a car. The chip in your PC is called a microprocessor. In contrast to performing a small set of specific tasks, a microprocessor is able to run a large set of “general-purpose” tasks. Your PC, for example, can run web applications, text editing tools, videos, and many other tasks.
Do you think “8 bits dead”?
Lots of application domains are making use of 32-/64-bit processors today, and 32-/62-bit processors dominate the market. Still, I don’t think 8-bit is dead. Small battery-operated embedded devices such as wireless sensors typically need long battery life, which motivates using smaller, lower-power controller chips where possible. We see a growing number of sensory devices in many diverse fields (environmental monitoring, medical devices, smart buildings, etc.), which again motivates using small, low-cost controllers for simple tasks.
What are you currently working on?
One of my main projects is using 3-D stacking technology, where multiple chips are stacked on top of each other, for improving energy efficiency of computing. There are lots of interesting opportunities and challenges. For example, we can put DRAM and processor cores in the same chip using 3-D stacking technology to cut down the “memory bottleneck.” Or we can stack more functionality into a 3-D stacked chip while keeping the individual chip area small, which is better for achieving higher yield in manufacturing. However, 3-D stacking brings many challenges, including higher temperatures on chips, lack of mature design and validation tools, and technology challenges. My research goal is to explore these opportunities and challenges for designing methods that can utilize 3-D stacking for getting higher performance out of our chips at a lower energy cost.
What’s the best engineering related advice you’ve received or given?
I think Feynman’s quote, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled” (from Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry), is one of the best pieces of engineering advice. We often see some products or ideas out there that may be well-marketed, but they really do not have the robustness, quality, or functionality that should be there. In the long run, though, I do believe better technology, better design, and ideas win as we cannot change the rules of physics or, in other words, “fool nature.”
Do you have a go-to MCU?
Not really. My selection of products varies depending on the projects, and I try to diversify my choices a bit while experimenting with new ideas.
What was the best course, lecture, or webinar you’ve attended?
I have attended a lot of great talks, hard to select one. A non-technical talk that pops up in my mind: I really liked Berkeley Professor David Patterson’s talk on “How to Have a Bad Career in Research/Academia.” I attended it while I was switching from being a PhD student to a professor. It really gave a lot of good insight and it was fun! I recommend it to all graduate students. The slides are on the web (www.cs.berkeley.edu/~pattrsn).
Your favorite engineering pioneer?
Two names pop up in my mind. One is Feynman, as I just quoted him in a question above. He is categorized as a physicist rather than an engineer but the boundaries between the two are rather thin when it comes to experimental work. I read Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces in my freshmen year in college, which inspired me to learn how things work and build things myself to solve problems. The second name I want to mention is Grace Hopper. She was a female scientist/engineer at a time when there were even fewer women in engineering. I admire her courage, many scientific contributions, and I like the fact that she popularized the term “debugging” (which was motivated by removing an actual moth from a computer system).
What are your goals for 2013?
My research group is working on reducing energy consumption of computers – or, in other words, improving “energy efficiency” – through jointly optimizing the hardware and the software. We will continue innovating in this area, and I hope we will demonstrate improvements in computing clusters as well as in small embedded devices.
1. Print magazine or digital? Print
2. Laptop or desktop? Laptop
3. iOS or Android? Android
4. Analog or digital? Digital
5. Dealing with hardware issues or software bugs? While researching, I focus more on HW issues (such as crafting a new architecture). In daily-life computing, I more commonly deal with SW bugs.
6. IE, Chrome, Firefox, or other? Firefox.
7. Starting a project or finishing it? Starting!
8. QWERTY keypad or touch screen? Both!
9. Flash drive or cloud? Cloud
10. Webinars or onsite lectures? Lectures