Semiconductors are the foundation of today’s most important technological innovations; virtually any piece of hardware that’s computerized or uses radio waves needs semiconductors. Today’s semiconductor technology is on the cusp of massive, rapid innovation in five major ecosystems: the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G wireless communications, autonomous/connected/electric/shared (ACES) vehicles, high-performance computing (HPC) and quantum computing.
These emerging and evolving ecosystems will require a wide array of both new and established technologies. They will also necessitate a new breed of “Renaissance” engineer with diverse cross-functional skill sets, versus the highly specialized engineers who populate today’s technology workforce.
The scale of these future semiconductor ecosystems will mostly be driven by large enterprises, though their complexity will likely provide fertile ground for startups to innovate new and disruptive solutions. At the same time, ongoing industry consolidation and M&A may release substantial engineering talent – especially multi-talented IC designers, software engineers, system architects and entrepreneurial inventors, who are not necessarily interested in working for large conglomerates.
This talent will most likely pursue career paths at numerous startups that will emerge to innovate in these new semiconductor ecosystems. Simultaneously, cost barriers to enter this space will likely fall. Moore’s Law (the observation that society’s computing power doubles at the same rate its computing cost is halved) should continue to evolve outside of pure geometric scaling, relying on what Moore himself called “device and circuit cleverness,” which predicts reduced cost as technologies advance and specialize.
Forbes Technology Council member Alessandro Piovaccari is SVP of Engineering and CTO at Silicon Labs, where he is responsible for the company’s hardware and software research and development, with a focus on wireless and IoT. With over 25 years of experience in radio frequency integrated circuit (RFIC) design, Piovaccari is co-architect and project lead for TV RFIC. As an industry leader, he frequently presents lectures about the future of semiconductor technology around the world, most recently at the 2019 VLSI Symposia in Kyoto, Japan.
Piovaccari’s work centers on IoT endpoint devices, with applications ranging from home automation to industrial and commercial. Many of these devices are constrained in terms of resources and must be designed in a highly efficient and reliable manner that requires not only large teams of specialized engineers, but also Renaissance engineers with diverse, cross-functional skill sets. As a result, Piovaccari predicts the future’s technology workforce will continue to favor the Jack of all trades.
“One of the most important components to be successful in these new complex ecosystems is to have a team of engineers with the right skill sets. Specialization will still be important, but electrical engineering jobs will also require engineers and scientists who are knowledgeable and agile across many disciplines,” he says.
Piovaccari encourages today’s technology leaders to seek these Renaissance engineers when hiring, especially when hiring new college graduates. According to him, the best candidates have a strong foundation in scientific fundamentals, statistics, electrical engineering (including fundamental analog and digital design) and transistor-level operation, manufacturing and testing. “Good knowledge of software development is a requirement, independent of specific technology interests. Look for people who build things, primarily based on microcontrollers or even mechanics and, more importantly, seek people who also understand how long it takes to build new things,” he says.
Though Piovaccari believes the semiconductor industry is evolving at a pace that is faster than our ability to learn, he acknowledges that it is not entirely without precedent. He sees the future of the semiconductor industry as somewhat similar to the birth of relativity and quantum mechanics. “In the past few years, as Moore’s Law has started to compress and the development cost of new advanced technologies became prohibitively high, the thought was that this industry was reaching its ceiling. But every problem is also an opportunity for innovation, especially if one is willing to further explore Moore’s ‘device and circuit cleverness,’” he says.
Piovaccari sees signs of a trend inversion. For instance, he notes, AI and machine learning concepts, which were considered pure theory until only a few years ago, are now seeing new light because of the availability of the massive amount of data and computing resources needed to obtain a good level of training. “New kinds of processors can be designed to address machine learning needs, delivering more computing power in the same process technology node, triggering some kind of a reset to Moore’s Law,” he says.
Ultimately, while Piovaccari believes that developments in the semiconductor industry will require large-scale investments, they will be well worth the ensuing economic benefits, especially as the space paves the way for startups to thrive. He’s optimistic about the future: “It will be a dynamic system where new companies will continuously form, generate great technology, then eventually be absorbed into the bigger conglomerate. Occasionally, some of them will even be successful enough to reach critical mass and keep growing.”
For more information, check out Alessandro Piovaccari’s executive profile here. To learn more about Forbes Technology Council and see if you qualify for membership, click here.