SANTA CLARA, Calif. What's the next killer app? Ralph Cavin, vice president of research operations at the Semiconductor Research Corp., thinks it includes thinking machines and devices that would replace human assistants.
Cavin gazed into his admittedly tricky crystal ball here Wednesday during his keynote address at DesignCon trade show. He defined a killer app as something that significantly expanded a desired capability for a large number of people, and was based on existing technology. As examples he cited the VisiCalc spreadsheet program, the cell phone and the World Wide Web.
Among his scenarios were proactive computers that could anticipate their user's needs rather than simply responding to commands; machines that could fill some of the roles of a human assistant, for which Cavin cited the Sony SDR 4X robot as an extreme example; and a number of applications at the intersection of microelectronics, nanotechnology and medicine. He also suggested holographic virtual meetings and the possible move to a hydrogen-based energy economy as potential areas.
Looking across this set of possibilities, Cavin reached some generalizations about what all this means for engineers. First, he pointed out that nearly all the areas listed represent the intersection of existing electronics with some other, quite different technology. Hence, he concluded, the engineers who will be in on the next big thing will be multidisciplinary, not purely electronics specialists.
Further, he suggested that the industry would continue to experience major discontinuities in computing technology, perhaps this time coming from quantum computing. So engineers should stand ready to change not just the way they design chips, but the whole way they think about computing, algorithms and programming.