New research fields in microelectronics and research fields in mixed-signal circuit design

Enabled by a multi-decade, exponential cost decrease for integrated electronic circuits - often cited as ‘Moore’s Law’, the semiconductor industry - and in especially the dominant CMOS technology - has dramatically changed our lives and today is the dominant contributor to growth in the electronic industry. The continuation of this exponential technology trend is questionable these days as semiconductor technology is facing scaling challenges. Consequently, there is more need to understand, research, and optimize the next levels of abstraction: the circuit and the system design.

In the past designers and system architects have mostly been forced to simply reuse the majority of prior generation circuits. As a matter of that fact, they have not been able to optimize the circuit structure and the system performance for new applications - despite adding a few necessary, additional features each generation. Therefore, most circuits and systems today are designed using a single or multiple standardized central processing units with memory. Analog blocks mostly rely on highly optimized standard topologies like operational amplifiers, comparators, digital-to-analog, or analog-to-digital converters, often added as discrete components to an application specific system design. This partitioning is far from an optimum for most end-applications. Therefore, often we can follow a different approach: instead of optimizing standard circuit topologies, the circuits will be designed serving needs of the system, and the system will be optimized for the application. Following such guidelines opens a large area of research, with an even larger economic growth potential. Optimized circuits, but also well partitioned systems can enable better service to the needs of the product’s end customer - while enabling lower cost, lower energy consumption - and therefore finally enable a higher value to our society (as these cheaper and better products also will be affordable for more people).

Sensors are the eyes, ears, skin, and noses of electronic devices and systems and will become a more and more important source of environmental information for upcoming intelligent devices and systems. We expect that sensing features will become key components to enable many new applications. First small size physical sensor systems are available for dedicated sensing tasks are available today. In future, we expect that sensors are becoming much more versatile and intelligent while exploring many new sensing and application areas. Simultaneously, they also have to become less expensive to conquer more application areas. Sensor interface circuits are the glue enabling this transition. Combining smallest scale (and therefore cheap), but intelligent sensors, with circuitry to connect to the sensor system (many different sensors and/or at different locations) will enhance the value of the sensor information for the system and application.

To illustrate these opportunities, let me give you a concrete example: robotics applications interacting with human labour will have to behave like humans when it comes to free movement in an arbitrary environment. A lot of sensors, but also sensor-interface circuits as well as signal processing algorithms to steer motors and breaks are required to cope with this technical challenge. Moreover, artificial intelligence can play a significant role here (and is an interesting topic for circuit designers!). Similar challenges, but also solutions arise for many applications in smart homes, smart cities, smart health, or industry 4.0 applications: Smart sensor systems are opening a wide field for new integrated analog and mixed-signal circuit solutions.