Electronic Design
Image courtesy of Jennifer Morrow Creative Commons

(Image courtesy of Jennifer Morrow, Creative Commons).

Masayoshi Son, Softbank Founder Betting on ARM, Preaches Security

(Image courtesy of Marvell Semiconductor).

Last year, Masayoshi Son, the founder of the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, made a huge bet on microchips. He spent $32 billion to acquire ARM Holdings, whose chip designs are used in the vast majority of modern smartphones.

He was confident that ARM chips would be increasingly embedded in devices other than smartphones, like thermostats or automotive systems. While that dream is still in its early stages, Mr. Son made his vision for the technology clear in his keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

On Monday, he said that four out of every five chips sold in the next twenty years would capture, process, and share data about their surroundings using ARM technology. He said that translates into a trillion chips for cars, televisions, and wearable devices.

That would be a show of tenacity as much as longevity. ARM is holding off competition from Intel, which has increasingly invested in the energy-efficient chips that turned ARM into a smartphone darling. Chipmakers have sold over 100 billion chips starting from ARM blueprints since 1990, when ARM was founded.

While energy-efficiency is a critical feature for smartphones, ARM is now concentrating on problems specific to simple connected devices like sensors or light bulbs. Mr. Son said that he was focused on improving the security inside ARM's microcontrollers, which have been lacking on that front for years.

"None of them are secure today," Mr. Son said, to nervous chuckles in the audience.

He described an ARM employee that hacked into 1.2 million security cameras during his lunch break. He showed a video of another engineer hacking into a car's computer system, writing a few lines of code to disable the brakes and control the steering wheel. He estimated that today's cars contain around 500 ARM-based chips.

Mr. Son's security plans come as ARM has started to redefine its role in thwarting hackers. Last year, the firm revealed a common security framework that would stretch from its chips to software to the cloud services using ARM microcontrollers. It was one of the major topics at the last year's ARM TechCon in Santa Clara.

Security is also vital because billions of chips will be linked together wirelessly. ARM recently announced that it had acquired two firms specializing in low-power wireless networks for connecting things like sensors in cities or on farms. The narrowband technology is also viewed as a way to restart growth at wireless carriers like Sprint, which Softbank owns.

The shift toward security and connectivity underlines the mainstream fame that ARM appeared to gain after the Softbank sale. After years in the shadow of chipmakers that license its technology, the company is now aiming to expand its workforce to 3,200. That would be twice its staff at the time of the Softbank deal, which came last July.

In an interview with Bloomberg, ARM's chief executive, Simon Seggers. said that the company had already hired a "few hundred."

The bigger workforce could help fulfill Mr. Son's vision for ARM, which he believes will drive the development of chips optimized for artificial intelligence. He predicted that within the next 30 years a single computer chip would be as intelligent as a human with an I.Q. of 10,000 and small enough to fit inside all kinds of devices.

"If you put one of these super-intelligent chips in your shoes, we will be less than our shoes," Mr. Son mused, wearing a black jacket over a darker black turtleneck. "We will be stepping on them."

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