Wednesday, December 17, 2008

8: A Long Time Ago ...

The year end was also approaching when the learned travellers met. Each had gifts of great value, so the company set forth on a journey. A star was born; and the three wise men followed it.

History tells of their success ... The need was strong, their mission was pure, their roles were clear, and their trust was complete. Duly, the first customer looked upon their fruit and saw it was good. So they rested a while, exchanging water for wine; then journeying onward. Customer followed customer, yea even unto the Nth generation; miracle followed miracle, as they too looked and saw it was good. Soon the customers were legion and company numbered hundreds.

... Yet a great unease had settled about them, for a monster had emerged that consumed the heart and threatened their genesis. "It didn't used to be like this when we were a small team!"

Alas the story is too familiar. A small group of experts bring a new creation to the market and it is welcomed. Success breeds success and expansion follows. But then everything changes as The System takes over; destroying the well honed team, introducing a lumbering inefficient beast. Too often The System fails to support what needs to be done, and fixing it depends on the good will of de-motivated individuals!

What is going on here? ...

When a small company is formed, it is formed around the people; their specific skills and knowledge, but also their relationship. It is true to describe its function as the sum of the roles of the individuals in it. Each individual knows how to do or get-done whatever it is that they do; passing it on to the next, who knows how to do or get-done the next stage. Everybody is vital, each depends on the others, and everybody feels really involved. More important the way the company does something is the sum of the systems the individuals use ... "The Person Is The System".

From an individual perspective, these are fun times; but from a business perspective, vulnerable ones! If any individual falls under a four wheeled unit of public transport, then it inflicts a potentially mortal wound. A sensible company reduces this vulnerability by incorporating its system into the fabric of the business as quickly as it can, so that "The Company Is The System".

To achieve this the know-how must be taken from those who have been doing it and incorporated into the company fabric, such that its operators can be un-skilled and therefore interchangeable; So Corporate-Systems require Operators, not Innovators; and de-motivation will inevitably result if the innovators are re-cast as such.

... Further, if the corporate-system are set up without truly appreciating the knowledge and skills those individuals contributed, then it is likely to be operationally naive and thus break under pressure. At which time the business will once again depend on the knowledge of the (now de-motivated) individuals, to overcome the deficiencies of the system itself! A situation on the whole leaving the business just as exposed as it was before.

Clear a healthy company needs to keep its innovators and keep them motivated, so should evolve them into positions where they can operate in a "The Person is the Operation" mode. Where they can develop themselves and their skills whilst doing an important but less critical role. Further, as their motivation remains high they are available and motivated to help with problems in the Corporate-System when they occur, as occur they must.

... Easy really, and everybody is happy!

At this stage politic requires me to point out that no companies were actually harmed in the production of this work; and that any similarity between the situations described here and any company of my personal experience, is entirely coincidental.

And finally it remains to wish you all a Merry Christmas; and particularly important for this year, A Prosperous New Year.

Good Speed.ian

Friday, November 7, 2008

I apologise to my regular readers as due to the sudden death of my mother, there is no regular November musing, just a brief epitaph ...

My Mother (Kathleen Phillips) pictured in 2006 ...

My Mother and Father (Douglas Lloyd Phillips) pictured on their Wedding Day in 1946 ...

Mr Douglas Lloyd Phillips : 12 Nov 1919 to 6 Mar 1978
Mrs Kathleen Phillips: 18 Jul 1922 to 27 Oct 2008

Just gone on ahead ...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

7: A Timely Reminder

By the time it gets to half way through the month, I've got to recognise that this missive has blown its schedule ... I apologise to my regular readers, but normal service will be resumed in November.

True to form, the financial crisis was holding its breath till I took my belated and ill planned vacation. So my lone 100ml back-packing sojourn from South to North Devon [1] across two major Moors and a large swathe of Devon countryside was continually interrupted by 'what shall we do' phone calls from Gordon and Alistair (Noo not them; they don't listen!). You see the 21C accompanies me into my wilderness; my mobile phone, my GPS, my LED torch, energy food, lightweight tent and sleeping bag ... I couldn't leave home without them.

But clearly the Gods were againgst me frittering away these important days, so arranged for nature to intervene. So after four days and around 60mls I aborted, got on a train and was home in a couple of hrs. Not quite the failed conquest of Everest I know, but the same principle.

... I had been out in quite abysmal Autumn weather, including a two day stretch across wildest Dartmoor. I had camped in the wilderness for four nights constrained by the shortening days to spend 12 hrs laying in a dark space little bigger than a coffin. It had been a trial to keep warm and dry but I was managing. Strange then, that the the turning point came at 3am in the beer garden of a Pub at Morchard Bishop. I was well fed and watered this night but it was very dark and cold, the rain was torrential and my light-weight tent was promising make for Kansas at the next gust. Querying my still warm phone produced an extreme weather warning for the next two days ... days that would find me on the Exmoor wilderness and very vulnerable. It is 'interesting' to find yourself in the position where only a thin synthetic membrane separates you from quite extreme discomfort and possibly harm, in the relatively civilised back-garden of Devon ... so I chose the logical option.

But it does make you think: Of the amazing achievement that is a house; which with little maintenance will keep all that hostility away from fragile 'you' for over a hundred years. And of the amazing robustness of animals (Especially of the Cows, Sheep and Ponies on the Moors); who watch you walk encumbered through their living space, simply not noticing the expressions of elemental force around them that would kill unprepared humans.

Undoubtedly that lack of innate robustness lead us to "thinking" and "tools" as a way of survival. But whilst today we perceive we are masters of the universe; it is well to remember we are in fact very small and very fragile once our comforts are removed. Humanity has achieved a lot; but we do still live in mud huts, and eat plants and animals.

So maybe the real upheaval caused by the financial crisis is that it reveals how insubstantial all our achievements really are, and how easily the most established and unquestionable of them can fail in a moment. Money has been around in excess of 10,000 years; some sources say as long as mankind itself ... if anything of our hand is unquestionable, than surely this must be it.

The Banking Crisis has shown the inconceivable is not improbable!


1: Two Moors Way

Monday, September 1, 2008

6: The Great Divisional Wars

As a junior designer it all seemed straightforward ; I was putting a few hundred logic gates onto a chip to make a more compact/cost effective implementation of an electronic product. I remember it needed a A0 sheet of paper, a logic template and it always took 3 months [1]. But now I come to think about it, I suppose I was actually designing the circuit for the whole product, just putting as much of it as possible into the chip.

... In the meantime my boss was doing something else. It seems he had been scheming the product and now whilst steering me, was also directing mechanical designers to do casework, and cables, and PCBs, and assembly drawings, and test-jigs, and scheduling regulatory tests, and other even less exciting (management) stuff. When the chip came back I realised that the system was my baby too; The chip had to work, but for the customers to buy them, they also had to work at least as well as expected in the Product. So we spent another 6 months getting the product ready for market and ready for manufacture [2].

Over the years integration density steadily increased and I was soon looking at designs in the order of a hundreds of thousands of gates. Immensely more complex and expensive their design was the responsibility of a specialist team. These experts had divested themselves of most 'external' issues to focus on getting the chip right and out on time. Design was complete when simulations ran and a test pattern was delivered ... Somebody else put it into a product and made it work and out of sight is out of mind (SEP [3]).

... Historians will identify this as the start of the Great Divisional Wars. The silos started as shallow depressions, but became deep pits with strong walls. Soon you were striving to do your bit right, so you could sit comfortably in the knowledge that as the ship sank, it was somebody else's fault!

But Moore's Law didn't stop and as it progressed, more specialisations emerged and the divisions grew and hardened. Soon it became possible to put computers onto a chip along with other stuff (Early 90's), and the issue of embedded software raised its head in the hallowed halls of the Hardware Divisions. Fortunately 'we' knew how to handle it. Software lived in an external ROM, so it was clearly someone else's domain. So all we needed to do was put a compute engine on the chip and the Software Divisions can work out how to use it for themselves: Qed.

... Alas, the exponential continued and today capacity has became so great that design of the whole system product is once again moving back towards being the designers responsibility ... But which designer? By now divisions have often organised as independent service companies, maintained in their traditional roles by their specialist EDA acolytes and investors. Broadly classified as Hardware and Software none has the natural experience to grasp the system role, the natural ability to change direction or re-structure, or the inclination to bring in a third party. Canute like altercation began between the factions for ownership of the system role whilst maintaining traditional roles and boundaries. War is never constructive.

Applying some logic to this situation. Design is actually a hierarchically recursive, pseudo logical process, of Requirements partitioning and refinement. It concludes when all the threads of Analysis have been matched to established Physical Mappings. Its partner, Verification, confirms back up though that hierarchy, that the actual physical implementation meets or exceeds the Requirements for that level!

Taking the elephant a chunk at a time ...

Firstly, Design is not Hardware or Software, but Analysis: And always commences at the System (Product) Level. This is the process today: The highest levels making use of that very powerful conceptual modelling engine, the human brain; the lower levels utilising a variety of mathematical modelling approaches.

Design is a process of assessment of the implementation approaches available to meet the product Requirement. Because the task is complex and the detail must be complete, then it is broken down into hierarchical sub-tasks based on various criteria or experience; and again; and again; until viable implementation technology, and static and dynamic 'configuration detail' identified for every thread of analysis.

... The need for different languages to cover the domains encountered in that analysis process, and their need to interwork is apparent. Also the roll of Reuse, to offer early termination for some of the threads ... But it also warns of the Emergent Behavioural consequence through introduction of functionality which exceeds that specified by the analysis process itself.

Partitioning decisions throughout will depend on functional and non-functional criteria: Power, Performance, Appearance, Weight, Colour, Availability of a Hardware Team, TTM, Cost, Form, Experience, Quality, etc. 'Hardware' and 'Software' will emerge during this analysis process, along with the platform requirements to support them.

In the extremes we know 'Pure Software' is good for handling state complexity, is easy to design with, can handle late fixes, but is power inefficient. Whilst 'Pure Hardware' is great for signal processing, is power efficient and naturally concurrent, but difficult to design and change. Less obvious is the continuous line between these extremes, along which all hybrid architectures can be located (eg: CISC, VLIW, GPU, NOC, DSP, FPGA, etc); each providing its unique partitioning values.

... It is apparent that traditional views of Hardware and Software are just arbitrary classification of modelled logical process. They are essentially the same thing and are both located close to the bottom of the Analysis process!

But isn't this obvious?

... Just because it matches what we know, doesn't mean its structure is obvious! If we can see how it is, then we are more able to visualise how to optimise it. Recognising that the process is hierarchical and recursive; with a matching hierarchical needs for Requirement partitioning, and Verification construction ... means that that the process should not be seen as a one-off Software or Hardware EDA problem; but a generic and recursive Analysis one.

All Divisions (Corporate and Business) are an administrative convenience of the time; so must evolve with the time. Truth will ultimately prevail, so fighting to maintain arbitrary divisional status-quo is not sustainable. We will not change this situation overnight, but if we can see where we need to go, we will get there ... albeit by baby steps.

Think of it as your opportunity to make love, not war!


3: "Somebody Else's Problem". Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. D.Adams

Friday, August 1, 2008

5: Science as a Modern Language

Our senses of sound, light, touch, smell, time and heat are our interfaces to the world; Life in all its psychedelic excess pours into us through them. Yet though we think of our nose as smelling, our eyes seeing and our ears hearing (etc), in reality they are just interface devices (I/O) converting physical phenomena into nerve-signals; it is inside our brains where these concepts are actually expressed. Equipped with appropriate I/O, the brain learns to interact with the variety and beauty of that media; without it, that media simply doesn't exist. The blind man does not see black, he doesn't experience anything of the visual spectrum at all!

Language is a good illustration of this. We all have ears, and can hear the sound of a language; but unless our brain is trained to it, we cannot understand what our ears pick up. We accept this, and also that understanding a spoken language does not directly transfer to an ability to speak it; even less to express its nuance in writing. It is unlikely an accomplished English born Poet will become an accomplished Japanese one ... yet he/she may learn to appreciate Japanese poetry in Japanese.

The world of music is another example. It is generally considered that sound itself has colour, expression, depth, meaning, (etc); words, when present, are a part of the sound and do not have to be understood or understandable (Cf: Opera and Amy Winehouse). We feel able to make artistic judgement on the merit of specific music ... but don't find it at all unusual that we cannot write, play music, or sing ourselves.

Of course we all have seen 'acclaimed' visual works and questioned the art that is actually in it! And have perceive the presence of a certain-something in other works, though found it hard to quantify it. And we readily accept that we could not satisfy our own expressive need in that medium.

It seems the more closely an 'art form' approaches human life-experience, the more more easily it is understood and valued by the masses. Music, Sport, Film/Visual and Architecture stimulate our innate understanding; and accordingly we feel qualified to judge quality and to offer relevant opinions. Even though the subtleties therein may still only be appreciated by experts; and those able to create great examples, few.

... To appreciate anything, one's brain needs to have the appropriate I/O for that world, and to be trained to an appropriate level in the languages involved.

So against this background we should not be surprised that the average person does not understand the many and subtle nuances of Science and Technology. Whilst they appreciate the functionality that they enable (from houses and automobiles, through to telephony and computation), the beauty within will remain a mystery to the great majority ... It has after all, no alignment with the innate human experience!

Science and Engineering are worlds with languages; expressing and realising exotic concepts ... That work! Its acolytes understand enough languages-of-science to understand what is being described. Its practitioners will in addition understand a few languages well enough to be imaginative and creative in them. And of course there are the few truly great artists who produce scientific works of great depth, beauty and elegance ... Works-of-art that fellow scientists appreciate and value, but more than 90% of people will never even comprehend the existence of.

... But great works of graphic art do exist, despite the blind man's inability to experience them.

So spare a thought for the 'scientifically blind' who will never experience these worlds; worlds so full of colour and depth, smell, sound, nuance, subtlety, imagination, heat and magic. Who will never know the dawn of scientific understanding; the birth of a new idea; the elegance of a well reasoned algorithm; the pleasure of a well proportioned architecture; the sound of a engineering solution; the smell of a successful design; the satisfaction of creation; the heat of the chase; the passion of ...

... Living amongst so many exciting worlds, is there any wonder that Scientists and Engineers can sometime seem distracted and distant in this one?

A basic education in Science and Mathematics provides the 'ears' to hear the music and the 'eyes' to see the colours. It enables ordinary people to experience the tip of the iceberg of the scientific multiverse that surrounds us. For some that learning, it is the starting of a journey of great pleasure and satisfaction; for others an awakening of awareness and appreciation. But a scientific education is never wasted ...

... A day without science, really is a life without sunshine!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

4: Survival of the Fittest

One positive thing that you can say about Politicians is that they are natures survivors. It is a very sophisticated skill to always end up on the winning team, and to appear to have scored the winning goal. As early politicians would attest, those who got it wrong frequently made a swift exit from the gene pool; and in so doing reinforced the strong genetic line for the professionals of today. So a note of caution, don't expect Politicians to lead anything, till you get to the finishing post.

So what is going on when Politicians of (all) Nations put their names and commit money to initiatives to encourage the development of Scientific excellence in their patch! Don't they know how risky and unpredictable Science, technology and Research are; let alone its successful exploitation? Europe has the Framework Program [3], with a commitment of around £3B/yr. The UK has the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board with a combined budget of around £3B/yr [4,5]. Other countries do the same (some much more). These are large sums and thus political minefields.

... Their objective is to invest to stimulate the future economy of the geographic region they represent. They want to see the right skills/technology/science in place in 5+ years time, so that when a new 'killer application' emerges, 'their' geographic region is well placed to capitalise (make money) out of it. In a Politician's world: money equals trade; trades (GDP) are taxed; and tax is where Governments raise its Budget, to spends 'supporting' its people and demonstrating its power (FYI, the UK Budget is about £500B/yr). Now we see it ... Science may be a long-shot, but it has a track record [2] for big-time contribution to the economy!

Business is where the money is 'made' (Entering the economy largely through wages), but its priority is making money (big-time) for its investors. Governments (Believe it or not) are interested in the wellbeing of the geographic region that many of us will call Home ... Business influences your pay-packet, Government influences your lifestyle.

So it is a good thing if Government spends a little of 'our' money to encourage the establishment of local Business enterprises, whilst avoiding 'feeding the money machine'. Indeed the World Trade Association (WTO), also has something to say about this. It insist (and the Members must enshrine the rules into National Law), that such investment moneys are spent pre-competitively ... that is, not for subsidising Products, only for developing Capabilities.

So we should should all take a personal interested in 'our' Businesses taking full regional advantage of the money that Governments offer. Such money can legitimately sway the balance such that when your Business undertakes to establish a Capability (aka Research) [1], that it is 'more inclined' to do parts of it in (for example) the UK, rather than elsewhere; And thereby establish a useful skill foot-hold which can be subsequently developed for (UK) economic benefit.

... It is in Businesses Interest to take the money to fund work it needs to do anyway.

... It is in our Personal Interest to take the money to encourage the (UK) economy to prosper.

Of course it is not just about forming an orderly queue to collect the money; it wouldn't be proper Government if there wasn't procedures and paperwork to navigate. Also many Businesses do not understand what Capabilities they need to have, let alone think far enough ahead to plan for their establishment. And of course any direction guidance suggested by Politicians should be treated with a great deal of suspicion. So these are the rocks on which these programs and their reputations flounder.

... But Businesses that are in possession of regionally motivated people, and have good visibility of their future needs, will find this support relatively easy to obtain and highly valuable!

So it seems those inveterate survivors may have got it right again! They know that if the money on offer is not taken or used properly then they can always blame Business's incompetence, and site their frustrated efforts on behalf of the country. And if just one of their investments comes up big-time, they can be there at the victory celebration with personal credit for the winning goal.

... You really have got to admire professionalism when you see it!


1: I think, therefore I jump to conclusions
2: In search of the Philosopers Stone
3: Seventh Research Framework Program (FP7)
4: Technology Strategy Board
5: Research Councils

Monday, June 2, 2008

3: A Fairy's Tale

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a beautiful Princess lived in delightful castle at the top of a sumptuous green, flower dappled hill. The soft perfumed air was filled with the restful sound of water burbling over stones. The deer and rabbits played together happily in the sun spangled glades in the nearby forest. She sat at the window; and as she sat she combing her long beautiful hair and thought ... Thank goodness the mapping between Boolean Equations and Logic Implementation is also this perfect, or they will never yield the 32nm integrated circuits that embedded intelligent systems will be dependent upon!

... We have become used to that absolute truth; that the Si Fabrication Process results in an Integrated Circuit that does what we Designed it to do. But poised at the doorstep of 32nm, it is well for us to consider the Princess's warning and check that that perfection does still apply!

Well we know that Boolean Mathematics is an absolute truth. So we can be sure that the gates and software we model, exactly predict the state and transitions that occur in the circuits and modules we implement! ... Or can we?

The mathematics may be right, but we also know that even a relatively simple logical object can have so much state and logical combinations, that its functionality cannot be fully explored by simulation in a lifetime. Simulations can only be explorations of a limited area of the functional space; and even less of the non-functional space ... And we also know that we only probably simulate what the application needs! Of course real Logic Gates are not actually binary, but analogue circuits; they are susceptible to the wide variety of interference sources in the real world. Which casts a further element of doubt over what we did simulate!

OK; well we are confident about the Manufacturing Process. We know that what the masks describe, the fabrication process implements ... Doesn't it?

Every 18mth the number of features on a chip doubles (as dictated by that other fairy-tale, Moore's Law), and each step halves the size and more than doubles the features on each mask; Frequently introducing new masks and process steps as well. As the features get smaller and more numerous, they are more susceptible to imperfections (defects), which also get more difficult to contain. Whilst some defects will 'break' the circuit, many more are non fatal producing weakened circuits, many of which will not show up ... just yet.

... We also know that as we move below ~60nm, the number of atoms in the transistors are getting so low that device behaviour is ceasing to be determined by bulk Si properties, become atomistic (probabilistic). Your NAND2 will be a NAND2 most of the time, and its timing will only be only statistically predictable ... Design with that!

Fortunately we have Manufacturing Test, to wheedle out all those devices that contain defects and marginalities, along with all the ones that just don't work!

Well of course we don't actually test all the 'functional vectors' we simulated, and though we use ATPG and Scan, there's not enough time to use full combinational patterns. This is an acceptable risk as long as defects are 'large' enough that their effect will be detected up in the wider circuit operation. But it is a statistical gamble, and whilst justifiable a few years ago when the number of features on chip was in the millions, will it still be ok when we hit the billions of the next few years?

Well at least silicon is reliable; there is no physical movement so there is nothing to wear out! What it is, is what it stays!

Well it is well known that electrons bounce off atoms and get stuck in gate insulation layers altering the threshold voltage and hence the speed of the gate. And some atoms, like aluminium, are not as firmly located as you might think: Some bumble down the track under the flux of electrons bombarding them; Others creep slowly along potential gradients to create novel circuit configurations. Then there are the high energy particles streaming through the galaxy and all the chips in it ... And the alpha particles arising from the package itself. And of course the smaller geometry processes are increasingly susceptible to all of this. It may be working when we ship it, but what probability it will stay working?

Mathematics predict that to achieve a useful yield of even 100Mtr chips calls for defect density of the order of 1 ppb through Design, Manufacture and Test! As even the most optimistic plans for parts of the process only targeting single figure ppms (Indeed "zero defects" is usually defined as less than 1 ppm), we must be a very long way above this today!

So lets face it, we just can't: Design it right; Make it right; Test it right; or Keep it right.

... Time out here! If this were true we should not be able to make the complex embedded systems that we so obviously do do today!

It seems systems exhibit a natural robustness to defects, which when combined with the innate inequality between defects, delivers working systems ... most of the time. It is a classic Tyranny of Numbers! But it is also a wake up call, as some cracks are showing.

We may have lived a charmed life so far; but as we progress to smaller geometries and more complex embedded systems, it does not seem sensible to rely on it as a strategy! We need to review our methodologies to recognise that we create copious defects along with everything else we do.

... Well, that or increase the personnel assigned to kissing frogs and polishing lamps.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

2: In Search of the Philosopher's Stone

It must be a couple of thousand years since the Ancient Greeks outlined the Grand Challenge to changing Base-Metal into Gold. Not a guiding vision of high ideals to improve dentistry; the motive was unquestionably monetary! They had noted the similarity between lead and gold, and reasoned that gold might be what happens when you mix lead with 'something' ... the alternative of course was less attractive.

Though the Challenge still stands today, it wasn't a failure because it 'started' the scientific study of materials which delivered steady value over the next thousand or so years ... before really kicking-in big-time around 1750. At this time a threshold of knowledge had been passed and an avalanche of possibilities, in medicines and engineering was being released ... The Industrial Revolution brought an economic boost more powerful than the ancients could ever have dreamt.

Of course popular history tends to remember it for its injustice: The displacement of cottage industries; The mechanisation of farming; The personal suffering that they caused; And the birth of the Luddites. But it also marks the inflection point where the net global birth rate changed from 0.1%pa where it had been 'forever', to the 2%pa still typical of today. A situation not brought about by increased reproductive enthusiasm, but by increased longevity ... Science was saving life!

... Under normal circumstances that increased growth rate would have continued for a while, then fallen back to 'normal' as one or other depredation corrected the imbalance. But as we know, material science continued to deliver and through a continuum of improvements in transportation, sanitation, water, medicine, food, living conditions, power, agriculture, living standards, (etc), has maintained that unprecedented figure right up to today. Of course one consequence is the world population growth from around 800M to the 6.5B ... Or to look at it another way, 5 out of 6 people in the world today owe their very existence to that Grand Challenge!

Much more modestly in 1961 President Kennedy challenged USA scientists to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade ... and today's $300Bpa semiconductor industry can trace its roots to that challenge. He backed the challenge with money, so it is hardly surprising that the local (USA) industries got the lion's share of the opportunities. And America got its man on the Moon as well.

... The spin-out opportunities that emerged whilst perusing Grand Challenges were exploited for financial gain by what became known as Business; They created the Equivalent of Gold from the thoughts of the Philosophers! It seems we actually found 'The Stone' many years ago but didn't notice as it was more ephemeral and malleable than originally expected.

Now if you ask those Businesses what they expect from their Research communities, they will rightly demand ... "More gold-equivalent opportunities! And we want them now!". Though well able to exploit the results of Research, Business is not really equipped to provide the longer term guidance that The Grand Challenge does. Grand Challenges provides a degree of high-level vision to keep Researchers progressing in a 'probably valuable' direction ... without which they revert to the uncoordinated hyperactivity of Brownian Motion; or the reactive oscillation of responding to Business immediacy.

Against that background the recent flush of Grand Challenges in the UK seem very modest affairs; but we have seen the mighty oaks that grow from little acorns! So I particular like the quartet: Building brains; Moore for less; Silicon meets life; No batteries included.

... They carry a certain fundamental resonance and seemingly attainable objectives; which though could be achieved in ~15yrs, could still be guiding research in 150 (or even 1,500). They are not technology specific, but have enough charisma to rally researchers across a wide field to their cause. So if Business can watch patiently and keep its exploitation wallets at the ready (without interfering too much); And if Governments can be brave enough to fund research which is not always immediately applicable; Then a myriad gold-equivalent opportunities will emerge along the journey ... The lion's share of which will benefit the economy locally.

And if a few of us can tear our eyes away from the glittering heap for a moment, to think of wider values. We can provide encouragement for Researchers struggling with their nightmares, and help stir up Public and Government support for some of their seemingly bizarre causes. And through this minor intervention, we will rightly numbered with those whose actions continued the advancement of science...

... And to whom, all too soon, 19 out of 20 people in the world will be able to credit their existence!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

1: I think, therefore I jump to conclusions

Between our ears are such wondrous things, I thinks we should all be as happy as kings. We ought to know more about the human brain than we do, but in any real sense we know practically nothing. It is after all the most sophisticated 'machine' in existence and it is hardly scarce, with more than 6 billion on the planet today working away 24/7/52/65 (ish) ... yet the vast majority remain un-noticed, un-appreciated and under-utilised by their owners.

I've got one here now ... It is fantastic, but perplexing. Perhaps most perplexing is its conscious and sub-conscious modes of operation. Its always out-there doing things without consulting 'me'; sub-consciously modelling in an instant environments and situations, then using them determines my future actions. Again sub-consciously synchronising and amending those models and their predictions by stimulating conscious observation of reality as it unfolds around me. Take vision as an example; It is a well established fact that we only see a small percentage of what we think we see, our sub-conscious mind makes-up the rest! In the late 1800's Hermann von Helmholtz described vision as a form of unconscious inference; "a matter of deriving a probable interpretation for incomplete data".

... This is a very logical way of minimising data-processing required by the conscious mind, so its is hardly surprising that our brains use this technique elsewhere as well. As a result, we are only aware of what we need to be aware of; and, scarily, are usually steered towards that by the prompting of our sub-conscious mind.

This modelling gives us humans a tremendous ability to leap to conclusions, which are appropriate for most of life's situations. We successfully over-take cars, catch dropped tools, throw rubbish into bins, etc.; solving in an instant computational and control problems insoluble by classic mathematical approaches. But it is also the reason why we keen to assume too much in engineering design situations! Readiness to start work on something without really understanding what it is, or what is involved, is a common problem here! It seems the so-called Scientific Method is actually a process to suppress intuition ... suppressing the sub-conscious mind's enthusiasm to deliver a rough-and-ready result.

Not surprising then, that we get into the situation that we think we know what something means; but when quizzed it transpires we do not! Whilst our understanding is perfectly good for a whole class of situations, it is frequently not for a new one. How's your understanding of, Science, Technology, Capability, Product, Research, Development, Component and System? We have a working understanding of what they mean individually, but it is difficult to resolve their relationships. Is a specific act Research or Development; or an object a Component or a System?

... Does it matter? Examine it with your conscious mind to find out! But I have found in any case of scientific optimisation it matters a great deal. Naturally the outcome of conscious examination frequently appears 'obvious' because our sub-conscious mind now follows the logic presented, even though it might not have leapt to that conclusion earlier.

So lets look at Science, Technology, Capability and Product to see how they relate ...

We know that a Products comprises a suite of things, which must all be in-place before it can be delivered. So the process of Developing a Product means creating all of those parts from the Know-How captured in the Corporate Capability Base at the time. Whilst technology may be one of the most challenging aspects of this, it is by no means the only consideration. Training, documentation, technical support, applications notes, development tools, market information, sales channels, etc ... even a way to accept money. It is fairly obvious then, that you should not start to develop a new Product if you don't Know-How to before hand ... If you do it is obvious that timescales and costs will be at significant risk. So establishing the necessary Corporate Capability (The collection of Know-How) ahead of Product Development is a no-brainer then!

Now we see that Corporate Research has a responsibility to establishment all necessary Know-How before it is needed for Product Development. So whilst this is traditionally thought of as a technical role, clearly there are non-technical aspects which will also need to be established. As our Product Roadmap becomes clear we can see what specific Know-How needs to be established and what needs tweaking; Some is already out there (New-To-You), and some needs to be created (New-To-Everybody).

... In a technical context, these are more familiarly known as Technology (Tools) and Science (Methods). Technology is 'ready to go Science', available but not yet installed in that particular Corporate Capability base; Science is 'demonstrated once' requiring rather more work before it is ready for mission critical use. Not surprising that Corporate Research starts from Technology if at all possible.

Of course Academic Research leads towards establishment of Science from basic principles/laws of physics. Science can be a very long way from Technology, and is even further from Capability. Misunderstanding of Corporate/Academic motives, and the difference between Science and Technology (the Gap of Expectation), is the root of most problems between these communities.

... Finally, not all Science presents a timely commercial opportunity (Remember the LASER) and even when it does the risk may be too great for commercial taste. In these circumstances it is left to Academic initiative (eg: Start-Ups) to carry the Science 'upward', to a point where Corporate Research becomes comfortable enough to 'reach down' and embrace it.

Academic Research and Commercial Exploitation are a symbiotic partnership, both needing the other to flourish. With a clearer understanding of the roles and needs of the other, the 'Gap of Expectation' should not be an obstacle to this.

... Of course my sub-conscious mind confirms that all this is rather obvious. But it would say that now, wouldn't it!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

0: Postponing the Inevitable

It happened with a certain inevitability. I was strap-hanging on the tube in London when a young lady offered me her seat! Puzzled, I scrolled though the options in an instant; I wasn't pregnant, nor disabled? She was very pretty (but obviously deranged), so I thanked her kindly and declined ... one day when I am old I might be grateful of a similar offer!

Getting home I looked in the mirror. That face was familiar; we had met almost every morning for the last 58 yrs but I don't suppose we really look at each other any more. I suppose he does look different than he used to ... but the changes are subtle. A wrinkle or two, a greying hair, some thinning of the loft insulation, but still the same person. Move on lad ... But I will always remember that fateful day!

... Of course I've just grasped what they mean when they say your memory gets worse as you get older. Ask some bright-young-things and their grandparents, to remember a specific startling fact ... 40yrs later most of the 'youngsters' have little difficulty recalling it, whilst many of the others will be 'reluctant to reply'. You see, even elephants do forget. Suddenly the future does not extend infinitely in front; and though my end may not be in sight, it is definitely in the event queue.

Well I was once told that life is like a jig-saw puzzle (Someone also told me that life is like a Pot-Noodle!), you bumble along picking up odd pieces as you go. Every once in a while you stop and look at what you have acquired, and put together the pieces that fit. Mostly it still doesn't make much sense ... it is after all, a really big jig-saw! But after years of grubbing around, I suppose it is a reward for persistence that some of my clusters do start to mean something. Of course some areas are still very sparsely populated ... the section to do with women for example. But other areas have much more in them ... like those around Engineering, Technology and Business.

... So the thought occurs that sometime between now and when my memory fails, I should try and pass on some of these nuggets for others to build on. I make no claim of ownership, originality or even accuracy; they are merely the result of observation and information gathered in the rough and tumble of more than 40yrs in engineering.

So here's the deal. Its my personal challenge to write monthly musings about a topic of recent relevance, or of longer term cogitation that you might find interesting, useful or informative. Just 500 to 800 wds to challenge neither you or I; once a month on or soon after the 1st. It sounds easy and I have 27 topics on-ice, its just the discipline to keep this going ... and do my day-job.

... And your part. Sieve through them and take the best bits for your own puzzle. Comment on them, discuss them, enjoy them, use them ... But most of all, don't forget to offer your seat to older gentlemen, because one day one of them will be me ;-)