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Observe the big picture, and keep it simple

May 24, 2018
Rick Nelson,
Executive Editor

When embarking on a project, keep an eye on the big picture and practice radical simplicity. That was the advice from keynote speakers at the Embedded Systems Conference and co-located BIOMEDevice show in April in Boston. The emphasis on the big picture came from Cees Links, the Wi-Fi pioneer who was instrumental in convincing Steve Jobs to add wireless-LAN capability to Apple computers in 1999. He now serves as general manager for wireless connectivity at Qorvo, which in 2016 acquired a startup Links had founded.

In his speech on the IoT and engineering jobs, Links told ESC attendees that shortly after having a “smart meter” installed in his home, a hot-water pipe burst. The meter would have detected an unusually high pattern of water and energy usage. It should have been simple to compose a text message alerting Links to the problem, but of course that didn’t happen, and significant flooding and damage ensued.

The smart meter, he said, was only able to send a “smart bill” at the end of every month. The sensors worked fine, he said; what was missing was the big picture, involving not just sensors but AI, user databases, and management and control systems. “What is getting more important for engineering jobs is understanding the system and how things interrelate,” he said. “A fitness band is not about a ‘thing’ but about lifestyle coaching. A smart home is not about sensors but about making better decisions faster.”

Links noted that technical work still needs to be done on wireless communications. He said a boss once told him that no one would ever need data rates beyond 11 Mb/s. But whatever hardware we come up with, the software engineers will gobble up the faster data rates (he added that he meant no offense to software engineers). He described the emergence of 802.11ax, with a distributed wireless infrastructure having one pod per room, delivering gigabit-per-second rates. But he noted that our data infrastructure in general is out of balance. In the real world, superhighways connect our cities and small roads connect houses within cities. With data, we have small roads leading up to our houses, which may have superhighways within. The IoT hierarchy needs to be re-established with, for example, 30 Gb/s into the house with 1 Gb/s per room, he said.

Addressing BIOMEDevice attendees, Jeff Karp, Professor of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recounted operating at the intersection medicine and science to develop tools for accelerated medical innovation. Karp noted that in an effort to improve their chances of getting published in journals, researchers often tend to make their papers as complicated as possible. But that’s not serving their patients, he said, advising that simplicity is important.

Karp cited work on drug delivery to treat arthritis. He noted the benefits of time-release medications but also the drawbacks—they are released continuously, even during periods of remission, potentially exposing patients to unnecessary levels of toxicity. To overcome the drawbacks, Karp and fellow researchers developed an inflammation-targeting hydrogel that delivers medication when it’s needed. In pursuit of simplicity in development of the drug-delivery system, he said the researchers asked whether they could use really simple components—they made use of ones on the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list.

Links concluded his talk with a reminder to avoid thinking only of “things.” A car is not a thing on four wheels, he said. It’s an ecosystem extending from drivers’ licenses to insurance companies.

Karp concluded his talk with an emphasis on radical simplicity. Consider your spectrum of options and aim for simplicity at all steps, he said.

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