Jason J. Gullickson

Jason J. Gullickson

Computational Independence

Much of the technology our country depends on is not produced here. While some of these devices are sold by domestic companies, they contain components produced and/or designed elsewhere.

As a result there are many ways these products makes us vulnerable. On the benign end of the spectrum, supply chain disruptions result in shortages of equipment. On the malignant end, bad actors are able to embed surveillance technology or other harmful features in these components, turning the devices they are used in against the consumer.

A solution I propose to this problem is an effort to use FPGA technology to implement as much of a devices component features as possible, and building domestic capacity to produce more and better FPGA devices, therefore reducing these dependencies and the risks that come with them.

This pays additional dividends as well. Technology built this way can employ a Cradle-to-Cradle design philosophy as FPGA devices can be easily re-used to implement other types of components when the useful life of the original device ends. More so than even general-purpose computers, an FPGA-centric consumer device can “morph” into an entirely new product by modifying the code that defines the device.

For example: consider the common smartphone: it contains numerous components which make-up the cpu, gpu, network interfaces, storage devices, baseband processor, etc. Each of these components perform tasks defined by proprietary designs that cannot be audited or modified (in some cases they contain complete stand-alone computers running software even the manufacturer has no control over). All of this hardware can be synthesized using an FPGA device, using code written by the device manufacturer, which can be audited and changed using standard software development tools and practices. When the product becomes obsolete, all of this hardware can be upgraded using new design code, or repurposed for an entirely new product.

Another advantage is that by consolidating hardware implementation on a single type of component the benefits of mass production can be leveraged in ways that are less effective when producing a wide range of components that change regularly. Factories built to produce FPGAs can be highly specialized, and there are fewer intellectual property barriers to entrepreneurs who wish to build these factories compared with the current model of using proprietary CPU’s, network interfaces, etc. These factories will need workers, and so not only do these factories manufacture computational independence, but they also manufacture domestic jobs.

Finally, this approach moves hardware into the software domain, and we have learned over the past few decades that problems pulled into the software domain can be solved much faster than almost anywhere else. The methodologies we have honed over 50 years of software development could be brought to bear on problems previously limited to hardware designers, themselves hamstrung by the limits of what hardware producers were willing to manufacture. Under this approach, hardware technology could evolve at software speeds and software developers could leverage the ability to design software and hardware synergistically to produce faster, more energy-efficient and lower-cost products than ever before.

I’m currently working on a roadmap for such a transition and applying this philosophy to a number of my own designs. So far the results are promising, and I would love to expand on this with other people who think these problems are worth solving.