Coupling & Crosstalk: First World Problems

hurdles-canstockphoto10553904 800x475Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Winter 2014 edition on pages 10-11.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.


First World Problems

Returning home with a carload of food for our Thanksgiving feast, we discovered our garage refrigerator had died. The only appropriate response other than panic was to laugh at this truly epic “First World Problem” (FWP). Most of the people in the world would wish they had such luxuries. (They may aspire to having a car and large quantities of perishable food; having a second refrigerator in a garage is beyond their dreams.)

A feast with friends and family to celebrate the harvest season is a worldwide tradition – even in poverty stricken and primitive societies. (Among other social factors it demonstrates the “fruits of labor”.) But the scale of the bounty for our celebrations with friends and family may be hard for others to comprehend. However, if you are a middle class American, it was probably easy to grasp the entire frustrating scene described. It is probably far harder for many of us, myself included from time to time, to realize how privileged we are. I am working on a new habit to look at things through the lens of FWP in an attempt to put things into perspective and remember how fortunate we are.

Speaking of abundance and FWPs, Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler in Abundance; The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012) describe solving global problems using technology to achieve balance between supply and demand. One part of this technology is a vast array of trillions (perhaps as many as 45 T) networked sensors to monitor our resources, increase efficiency, and reduce per-capita consumption. Sensors such as these and the corresponding actuators are many of the “things” envisioned by the Internet of Things (IoT).

I am thankful to be a member of the TSensor Summit ( organizing committee. Our mission is to identify the specific applications and technology required to build the trillions (“T”) of sensors for the IoT and achieve “Abundance”.

When one looks closely at credible data on the many global challenges including:

  • World population growing to over 9 billion in 2040. (US Census Bureau)
  • Significant levels of air and water pollution in the developing and third world and the corresponding decrease in years of life. (World Health Organization)
  • Primary and secondary education enrollment of 82% which implies approximately 267 million children worldwide are not in school. (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO)

The size of these global challenges in terms of the numbers of people or the changes required to achieve “Abundance” is mindboggling. More disconcerting, is that the 5 to 10 year data shows only minor incremental change. The trend lines do not show responses that are sufficient to avoid crises. The only abrupt change seen in the data was Japan’s sharp reduction of alternative (renewable) and nuclear energy sources from ~17% to ~2% of its total energy supply over two years. This was due to Japan’s immediate curtailment of nuclear power production after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It also revealed minimal use of alternative energy in Japan.

Governments and global organizations have developed programs to make progress on these global challenges. However, the improvements have been incremental and gradual – typically a percent or less per year. It is clear that disruptive change is required to make significant improvements. Disruptive change can be from new technology and/or significant “willpower” through massive shifts in government priorities and policy. As repeatedly shown, technology adoption is far quicker than government action absent a crisis and accompanying public outcry on the scale of Fukushima.

A number of recent technologies have shown exponential improvements in terms of increased capabilities and decreased cost over time. Semiconductors are the most prominent example and have tracked Moore’s Law, which predicts the minimum cost of an integrated circuit is achieved by doubling of the number of transistors every two years. This exponential growth in capabilities and lower costs typical drives very rapid user adoption. These user growth rates often exceed exponential growth and resemble a hockey stick when graphed versus time.

Only these “exponential technologies” have the ability to quickly and economically bring about the disruptive change required. At the end of 2012, the number of active mobile phone numbers exceeded the global population. This is the only technology that has achieved 100% market penetration – 1 per person on average. No other technology including running water in the home (57%), improved sanitation e.g. toilets (61%), or FM radio (58%) has yet achieved 100% penetration. Mobile phone technology took thirty years to develop with the most significant growth in the last ten years displaying the typical hockey stick adoption pattern.

As we develop new disruptive technologies, care must be taken since one size does not necessarily fit all. Even though it is desirable to have the greatest economies of scale to make these trillion of sensors economical. The end applications and requirements may differ vastly. The potential groundwater contamination here in Silicon Valley may be significantly different (possibly industrial chemicals) versus those found in sub-Saharan Africa (fertilizer run off). And those areas requiring air pollution monitoring (such as regions of China and India) may not necessarily be those in the greatest need for water monitoring. Therefore, solution “platforms” that can be economically targeted to the specific end application are preferred. The ultimate goal of the TSensors Roadmap is to identify the end applications and sensing technology with the greatest applicability.

One other area of concern for the development of exponential technologies, including the IoT with trillions of sensors, is avoiding “shifting” the problem. Many previous technologies have shifted the problem in time and/or place. Nuclear power generates radioactive waste that has no reasonable treatment options and requires storage for thousands of years. Many obsolete electronic devices contain “e-waste” with toxic materials that are sometimes “processed” in third-world countries with inadequate personal and environmental protection. The FWP of disposable and obsolete electronics quickly has become a third-world problem.

As we develop trillions of sensors that will last ten or more years to solve these global challenges, we need to be sure we don’t cause pollution or other environmental harm in the process. A total product life cycle (TPLC) from concept to end-of-life that encompasses the entire supply chain is necessary. Industry standards should be established to ensure these problems are not shifted.

Having traveled the world extensively for work and pleasure, I have seen a wide range of living standards from extreme poverty to lavish opulence. At the same time, I have witnessed all manner of labor. Professionally, I have reviewed all aspects of the electronics supply chain in the US, Europe, and Asia from grungy manual assembly lines to gleaming new semiconductor wafer fabs. The good news is that I have found many people who take pride in their work producing quality products and services even in the most trying of situations.

My family and I are blessed with good health and well being that comes with the privilege of living in Silicon Valley. For this I am extremely thankful! I will “just deal” with my FWPs with a minimum of complaining. And I will continue to work diligently with my clients to solve our global challenges without creating new problems or shifting them elsewhere.

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.

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