Sony: Robotics to Drive Third Wave of Chip Innovation

Sony's Tsugio Makimoto says ASICs and flash memory will be the differentiating products of the third wave of innovation.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Robotics will drive the "third wave" of semiconductor innovation, Sony Electronics chief strategist said in a speech here Monday.

Tsugio Makimoto, corporate adviser to Sony, said ASICs and flash memory—not general-purpose microprocessors and DRAM—will be the differentiating products of the third wave of innovation, which will replace personal computers. Makimoto, famous for the so-called "Makimoto Wave" of customization and standardization, spoke before an audience of top chip executives at the Semico Summit here.

"This new direction provides new opportunities for new engineers and new scientists, and for the chip industry," Makimoto said.

Makimoto was also awarded the Bellwether Award from Semico Research Corp., the conference organizer. The award recognizes leaders in the semiconductor industry who have contributed to the advancement of the industry.

Makimotos "first wave" of semiconductors began in 1957, when the industry swung from standard discrete logic to custom chips for TVs and calculators from 1967 to 1977. Then, the first standard microprocessors and memories were built, in turn giving way to ASICs. Now, he said, the world is driven by field-programmable gate arrays.

Makimoto has consistently argued that programmable systems-on-a-chip (SOC) and complementary systems-in-a-package (SIP) designs will replace the collection of chips mounted on motherboards and add-on cards in todays PCs and other digital devices—the "third wave," which will begin its final half cycle in 2007. Sony will target robotics and other "cleverness-driven devices" during this third wave of innovation, he said.

As an example, Makimoto showed a promotional video of the Qrio, a robot Sony shipped in Japan in 2003. Although the computational power of the robot is roughly that of a PC, the Qrio contains dozens of sensors. The bipedal robot can pick itself up from a fall, walk at an angle and across varied terrain, "run," dance, recognize its owner, and mimic emotional responses.

Placing a large amount of computational power inside a small package will require investment in "jisso," a Japanese word Makimoto has adopted to describe all aspects of SIP manufacturing. SOC components use logic blocks arranged in a jigsaw puzzle across the surface of a chip, which are easily connected.

SIP devices, by contrast, are somewhat cheaper to manufacture, as they combine stacked semiconductor dice inside of a single package. While the components of a SIP are cheaper to manufacture, part of the cost is transferred into designing the complex wire interconnects that tie the pins of each chip together. Each level of jisso—at the chip, module, package and board levels—adds more complexity and more cost, Makimoto said.

"SIP complements the weaknesses of SOC," Makimoto said.

The complexity isnt confined to the interconnects, either. As any PC user knows, software running on standard PC hardware requires patching and updates. Consumer electronics, however, arent necessarily designed with upgrades in mind. In the future, designers will be asked to "upgrade" devices in the field with additional features, in much the same way additional features in set-top boxes, cable modems and cell phones are "turned on" through software updates and back-end configuration.