"The significance of embedded systems can hardly be overestimated when it comes to sustainability"
12/13/2022 Green & Sustainable Engineering Interview embedded world

"The significance of embedded systems can hardly be overestimated when it comes to sustainability"

Embedded systems influence the daily lives of almost everybody - yet they go mostly unnoticed. Furthermore, embedded systems play a significant role in the topic of sustainability. In this interview, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Sikora, Chairman of the embedded world Conference, describes how closely the development of these systems is interwoven with the topic of the century, namely sustainability, and the responsibility that goes hand in hand with that.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Sikora Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Sikora, Chairman of the embedded world Conference

Is the embedded community aware of its sustainable and ethical responsibility?

Green Software Engineering

When the term sustainability is mentioned, many people think immediately about the ecology aspect. Therefore we will also start with it ... What is Green Software Engineering?

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Sikora: 'Green engineering' in general, for me, is primarily associated with the efficient use of resources. This is actually something that embedded engineers have always practiced. Originally due to limited computing resources and then because of battery-powered, ultra-low-energy or even energy-harvesting systems. From the very beginning, therefore, a great deal of attention was paid to efficient implementation - and not just in the software, of course, but also in hardware and system design.

In the age of the Internet of Things (IoT) and wide-ranging networking of embedded systems, the term has started to take on a second dimension. Everything that has to be calculated on the gateway or in the cloud should also be double-checked for efficiency. This so-called fog computing, where computing is flexibly distributed across differing levels of IoT systems, is a very topical R&D issue in which computing and communication and their corresponding cost and energy requirements can and must be weighed against each other. A great deal is changing there at the moment. Personally, I also expect embedded AI to make a major contribution here, resulting in often oversized AI accelerators only being used where they are really needed.  

Sustainability in the development of embedded systems

What role does sustainability currently play in the development of embedded systems?

Prof. Sikora: In the case of embedded systems, sustainability involves not only the efficient use of resources but is also about system development - i.e. hardware and software. Much of what is sustainable is hardware-driven, which means using hardware as long and stably as possible, manufacturing it cleanly, repairing it and disposing of it. But sustainability also includes updateability of software, function expansion, firmware update over-the-air, etc.

What control levers can be applied in the development of embedded systems in order to meet the diverse sustainability goals?

Prof. Sikora:
Control levers can be applied throughout the entire lifecycle of embedded systems. This begins with production - because semiconductor process technology is complex and very energy-hungry but has a lot of potential for optimization. The transformation of global supply chains has certainly played a role in this. For a long time, the typical supply chain looked like this: Silicon production in the USA, Taiwan or in Europe, housing in Malaysia, PCB production and assembly in China and from there all over the world. This is currently becoming more regional again - largely for political reasons to ensure digital sovereignty - but with a positive ecological side effect.

By the way, Prof. Heuberger from the Fraunhofer Institute IIS will give one of the keynote speeches on digital sovereignty from a national and European perspective.

Back to embedded systems: A variety of aspects play a role in their operation. These include: updateability of software, information security (keyword: key Infrastructure), storage capacities and, related to this, expandability which includes the issue of reparability. Many systems are currently designed in such a way that they can only be completely replaced. The smartphone is just one example. With many control units, it is also not possible to replace individual components. A lot still needs to be done in this area.

And then at the end of the lifecycle, it’s a matter of establishing clean disposal chains and not simply throwing the e-waste on the scrap heap and sending it to Africa. Here too there is still a lot of scope for optimization.

In the case of lithium batteries, for example, the metal lithium is present in the black mass of used batteries in a concentration of 2 to 5 % - much higher than is found in nature, where it has to be extracted from the earth at great expense and by using huge amounts of fresh water. The same is true of many other metals used in electronic components and printed circuit boards. Numerous research projects are currently underway to return these materials to the material cycle (the cyclic economy). 

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Is the embedded industry driven today more by regulatory requirements or do the people responsible now recognize the need to act sustainably?

Prof. Sikora: I believe it is actually both. There is now a broad awareness of the need to do what is ecologically feasible within the bounds of economic possibilities - even if this is not yet the case everywhere in the world. One must also accept that not all lip service automatically leads to more sustainable use of resources. But the regulators – especially those from the EU - are doing their best in this area to increase the pressure. So it's coming from both sides.

Are there any on-going projects that already take into account the sustainability of the embedded system during development?

Prof. Sikora:
From my point of view, the most striking examples are currently energy-autonomous systems. In other words, systems that draw their energy from the environment via energy converters (e.g. from pressure, light, temperature) and thus supply themselves. For me, this is a perfect example of a sustainable embedded system that can actually be operated indefinitely with no waste of resources.  

Embedded systems support sustainability and efficiency

Where do embedded systems already help to save resources in everyday life?

Prof. Sikora:
This is the second dimension in which embedded systems can be used to support sustainability and the efficiency of the systems above them. The importance of embedded systems for sustainability can hardly be overestimated. With intelligent, controlled, adaptive systems, one can significantly improve the efficiency of an overall system. An old example is the energy efficiency of the internal combustion engine as applied in today’s vehicles, which could not be achieved at all without all the microelectronics. And of course, and even more appealing: all the control electronics and communications technology in an electric car.

But of course all of these are also control mechanisms relating to environmental technology, power plant technology, smart city, smart home, smart grid, smart energy, smart farming, etc., etc. These are areas in which embedded systems are an indispensable element in making overall systems more efficient and sustainable.  

Another example comes to mind where an embedded system played a key role in a field demonstration. There is a company that is developing smart rat traps. Until now, whenever rat infestation is detected, they simply put large amounts of rat poison into the sewer system to drive the rats away. That too, can be intelligently controlled to reduce environmental impact: By setting up sensor-based rat traps and then only putting in as much rat poison as is actually needed. If think about it, you'll find thousands of super-exciting examples.

Which slots in the conference program focus specifically on the topic of sustainability?

Prof. Sikora:
We have included a session titled 'Sustainability' in Track 1 'IoT', which will deal with sustainability challenges by referring to use cases based on the topics of Repairability and Renewability. To complement this, we are planning a lively panel discussion on 'Sustainability and IoT'. Sustainability aspects are also to be found in other topics, such as optimizing the energy efficiency of motor control systems, or in update topics in the program that contribute to extending the service life of devices.  

Responsible AI and the accountability of the embedded industry

In addition to 'sustainable', the word 'responsible' is also part of the claim of the embedded world Exhibition&Conference 2023. How does the embedded community deal with its responsibility?   

Prof. Sikora:
I think the biggest issue with regard to responsibility in embedded systems is the inclusion of artificial intelligence. With AI we are entering a completely new level of complexity and adaptability. Currently, there are many dependable systems and subsystems that have become dependent on each other through networking, but where individual stakeholders no longer fully grasp the complexity of the overall system. We are consequently already at a stage today where we have to accept the fact that these systems work without us completely understanding their overall complexity. This is based on the assumption that the combination of stable systems as an overall system is also stable. Which is not necessarily the case ...  

This level of complexity will increase even further when we include AI - meaning adaptive systems which learn by themselves and adapt themselves. They adapt in ways which were unforeseen at the time of their development regarding how a system might behave in the future.  Accountability plays a central role when it comes to ensuring the reliability of such systems.

Responsible AI has at least one more dimension: with intelligent systems, we very quickly approach areas that can be considered ethically questionable. Prime examples of this would be surveillance systems of the kind often used in dictatorships. However, if we are honest, we can already do many ethically reprehensible things with embedded systems. AI is thus 'only' an extension of this, but its effectiveness makes it potentially even more critical.   

Is the embedded community aware of this responsibility and is it addressing it?

Prof. Sikora:
I have to answer that in a differentiated way ... There are many serious activities connected to responsible AI that are making great progress. At the embedded world Conference 2023 we will have the chairman of the IEEE 7000 working group that is looking at this. Here, a clear trend towards certification is emerging. There are also working groups at the national and European level that are preparing regulations. This was also an issue at embedded world 2022.And at the embedded world Conference 2023, Prof. Ali Hessami, the chair of the P7000 working group at IEEE, will deliver one of the keynotes.

But of course there are certain differences worldwide. In regulated democracies and autocracies, embedded systems are sometimes deliberately used in combination with AI to explore and transcend ethical boundaries.   

Do companies consider responsibility from the very beginning of a development project, or is it just a side issue?

Prof. Sikora:
There are many organizations that consider the issue of accountability very early in their development process. For example, in the case of image processing, where personal data is deleted directly at a very early stage and only the data actually required for analysis is used. But as mentioned above, there are certainly differences here worldwide.

What discussion initiatives will there be on this topic at the embedded world Conference 2023?

Prof. Sikora:
We held our first panel discussion on the topic of 'Responsible AI' along with VDE at embedded world 2022.  We are now planning a follow-up discussion at the embedded world Conference 2023 at which we want to move forward on more concrete terms.

Learn more about tickets and program of embedded world Conference 2023 at: www.embedded-world.eu