Interview: Steve Furber on UK chip innovation

ARM chip designers Stephen Furber and Sophie Wilson will be honoured at the Economist Innovation awards on 3 December 2013

ARM chip co-designers Stephen Furber and Sophie Wilson, will be honoured at the Economist Innovation awards on Tuesday at Bafta in London. In this interview, Furber discusses UK computer innovation.

Furber was the principal designer behind the BBC micro home computer. Just over 30 years ago, in October 1983, be began work on the Acorn RISC Machine project, which ultimately led to the development of the ARM chip that now powers 10 billion devices, ranging from iPhones to in-car infotainment systems.

ARM has shipped 40bn processors, roughly equivalent to half a dozen chips for every person on the planet.

A typical smartphone will have 10 or more ARM processors inside doing various jobs. The elegance of ARM's approach to the design of the processor, is that it is architecturally a simple system, a reduced instruction set computer (Risc).

This is diametrically opposite to the x86 processor family from Intel and AMD that power PCs. The x86 family of chips use a complex instruction set computer architecture (Cisc). The Cisc instruction set is more powerful, but because the silicon has do  more work, the chips tend to use more power and, as a consequence, run hotter.

State of the UK industry

Manchester is not only renowned for its football. Furber is the ICL chair and professor of computer engineering at the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester, where the world's first stored program computer, the “Baby”was invented. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, spent the last years of his life at the university.

Furber believes the UK computing industry is in good shape. He says: “We have gone through two generations of computing. The original UK computer industry was amalgamated from  a set of mergers into ICL, and was very focused on mainframe and the heavy end of computing.” But since the 1990s, Furber says the emphasis of computing has moved away from mainframe hardware to consumer electronics and the web.

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“The web integrates consumer electronics and enables your smartphone to do all the things you like to do with it.”

To link such devices to the web requires both  computing and communications technologies. And, in many ways, Furber believes the UK's role in the history of computing technology has been to make such technologies available to the masses. He says: “The UK played a major role in the evolution of these technologies. Pretty much every phone on the planet has an ARM processor, designed by a company based in Cambridge.” And while the internet was developed out of US defence research, he says: “The thing that brought the internet to the wider public was Tim Berners-Lee's work at Cern, with the invention of the protocol that formed the basis of the worldwide web.”

The internet of things opportunity

Furber believes there is a huge opportunity for the UK computer in the internet of things. He says: “Today's consumer electronics market is that the computers are associated with humans. The internet of things moves intelligent devices across the physical world. They may not necessarily be linked to people.” So today, it is possible to buy an intelligent light bulb. “You can imagine that your fridge and your cooker are all on the internet and you can ask your house to warm up before you get home over your phone.”

You can imagine that your fridge and your cooker are all on the internet and you can ask your house to warm up before you get home over your phone

Steve Furber

He says the internet of things will dramatically change the way houses are wired. Devices will be wired to a common mains supply which will also provide communication link via powerline Ethernet. “So the light switch and bulb are just devices on your mains [network], and they talk by communicating over the main cables. It will no longer be necessary to make a direct connection between the switch and the bulb.”

Speaking of the wider opportunity for startups in the UK, Furber says: “The UK is a entrepreneurial society. We are behind the US but probably ahead of most of Europe in encouraging people to start their own businesses. If you have a reasonably viable idea, it is not too difficult to get things going.”

Chip start-up challenges

Given the massive success of ARM, will there be a UK chip industry? Not likely, according to Furber: “The cost of designing a microchip to production quality has been going up and up and up. Now, the amount of money you need to design a state of the art system on a chip is way beyond anything a startup company could possible think of raising. So startup activity in the fabless semiconductor business has all but dried up because it is too expensive,” he says. 

But he says there are startups in the application of electronics. “You don't need to design on silicon. You can use FPGAs [field programmable gate arrays] or off-the-shelf parts, but I have built my career in the chip design business, where it has become much harder for startups.”

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