Technology, journalism, social media and social responsibility
On Friday evening I took my three girls and the daughter of their horse trainer down to the local grade school for a “family movie night.” The film they were showing was “Despicable Me,” a cartoon that I had not even reviewed beforehand. But it wasn’t until this afternoon that I realized the show has incredible parallels to the electronic design automation (EDA) industry.
In the movie, a deliciously despicable scientist/villain (EDA company A) is ordered by a powerful banker (powerful investors) to steal a ray gun (EDA software) that shrinks anything (Moore’s Law). What the scientist character doesn’t know is that the same banker has ordered another younger, kookier scientist (EDA company B) to steal the same ray gun.
The ray gun was actually developed by an innocent, smaller third party (EDA startup).
The despicable scientist makes short work of the assignment, stealing the ray gun with the help of a band of look-alike robots (EDA engineers) who communicate with each other in a different language (choose your favorite). But almost as quick as the scientist has the gun in possession, it’s stolen by the kooky guy, and thus unfolds the plot.
The movie gets its kid appeal with the introduction of three little orphan girls who knock on the kooky scientists’ door to sell fundraiser cookies. The despicable scientist, seeing them as a way into the closely-guarded, high-security mansion, decides to adopt the girls as a means to gain access.
Now, the despicable scientist’s real dream isn’t to steal the ray gun for the banker. It’s to steal the moon, and thereby prove to the world – which up to this point has dismissed all of his achievements – that he’s really about something. (Poor, poor unappreciated EDA…)
A lot of zany things happen along the way, but the upshot is, eventually the despicable scientist does shrink the moon – but he also loses his heart to the girls, and decides that it’s more important to be with them.
At last, he decides to ignore the banker and make a mad dash for the girls’ dance recital.
Unfortunately, they ray gun’s effects are only temporary. In fact, they’re inversely proportional to the size of the object that is shrunk, and the despicable character still has the moon in his ship when he goes to find the girls.
How does the end parallel to EDA? There are lots of possibilities. Here’s my take.
At some point, Moore’s Law is – like the moon – going to blow up. I’m pegging 20 nanometers, 16 at the most, as the point at which a strictly physical continuation of Moore’s Law becomes untenable using current technology, and probably economically unachievable by any other means as well. (Note that even Intel now emphasizes that Moore’s Law was never meant to be construed as a strictly physical process reduction; manufacturing speed and cost considerations are also part-and-parcel to the equation).
How does EDA survive that?
It could obsess until the bitter end in an effort to find new and better ways to manufacture chips at smaller line widths by pushing the speed of direct-write techniques or stepping up the development of new transistors or materials.
But the long-term answer will require engineers to stretch even more.
If we’re really going to achieve a breakthrough, we have to feel empowered to break out of traditional EDA all together, and find answers from beyond our industry. Parallel processing is one of these, and it is making great advances. Leaders in the graphics chip industry, most notably NVIDIA, may also provide answers. Advances in power design can be achieved as much – if not more – through smarter execution of software programs. And the standardization of die-stacking technology should literally enable a whole new dimension in design.
The list goes on. But we won’t get there by simply obsessing over how to shrink the moon – or banking on a ray gun with limited effectiveness.
At the end of Despicable Me, the lead character passes the rapidly expanding moon off to the kooky scientist, launching both into orbit (he who gets stuck with Moore’s Law loses?). He then returns to his house, where he shows the girls his greatest achievement…a children’s book that he has written himself.
Technology isn’t worth the rat race if it doesn’t benefit our relationship with our own families.
The EDA industry is gifted with some of the greatest minds ever assembled. They’re very intelligent, very driven, very focused. Willing to sacrifice anything for a goal and proper recognition.
For these folks, it should be interesting to note that unlike many other American films, which try to bring closure to all aspects of the plot and tie up loose ends before the end, Despicable Me makes no attempt to resolve the fact that the original developer of the ray gun completely lost his invention (perhaps for the best?) or that the many robots who are blown up or literally blown away during the movie will never be seen again.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this. Perhaps, in the drive to accomplish something, to achieve appropriate acknowledgment, we should avoid being so narrowly focused that we choose stealth over creative ability, and competitive sleuthing over other, less obvious but better fixes that may lie outside our immediate vision.
And we should never, ever lose empathy for real people.