Electronic Design

Masayoshi Son Preaches Security After Betting $32 Billion on ARM

Masayoshi Son, chief executive of the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, has placed an enormous bet on microchips.

Last year, his company acquired ARM Holdings for $32 billion on the premise that the same chips used inside almost every smartphone would slowly but surely be repurposed for everything from thermostats to autonomous cars.

On Monday, Mr. Son laid out his ambitious vision for ARM in his keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. 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 chips. That translates into more than a trillion devices for cars, wearables, and other devices.

That would be a show of tenacity as much as longevity. ARM is holding off fledgling competition from Intel, which failed to design the same energy-efficient chips that turned ARM into a smartphone darling. More than 100 billions chips based on ARM's blueprints have been sold since 1991, when ARM was founded.

ARM has focused on not only lowering the power consumption of its chips but also other issues specific to connected devices like sensors or light bulbs. In particular, the company is aiming to improve the security inside its microcontrollers and other chips. Mr. Son claimed that the company had been lacking on that front for years.

"None of them are secure today," Mr. Son said.

He showed a video of an ARM engineer hacking into a car's computer system, disabling the brakes and turning the steering wheel with lines of code. He also told a story of an ARM employee that hacked into 1.2 million office security cameras during his lunch break.

Mr. Son's security scolding comes as ARM takes more responsibility for thwarting hackers. For instance, the firm has built a common security framework that would stretch from its smallest microcontrollers, to embedded software, and to the cloud. It was one of the major announcements at the last year's ARM TechCon in Santa Clara.

Security is also vital because billions of chips will be linked together wirelessly, giving hackers lots of potential entry points. ARM recently announced that it had acquired two firms with software for connecting things like sensors in cities or equipment on farms to low power wireless networks based on technology called narrowband-IoT.

This is a new position for ARM, which has stayed in shadows cast by Qualcomm and other suppliers using its designs. The company is aiming to expand its workforce to 3,200 or almost double its staff at the time of the Softbank deal, which came last July. Simon Segars, ARM's chief executive, said in a recent interview with Bloomberg that the company had already hired a "few hundred."

The larger workforce could help fulfill Mr. Son's vision for ARM, which he believes will also drive the development of chips tuned 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," he mused, wearing a black jacket over a darker black turtleneck. "We will be stepping on them."

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