Intel Learning Journey Reflections

Do you know that Intel’s founder came up with the famous Moore’s Law? Me neither.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can fit onto a single silicon chip doubles. about every 2 years. This means that advances in semiconductor technology here will potentially double the speed and capability of your computer every 2 years. It is also the reason why we are using ultra-fast laptops and not some ancient Windows-DOS computer today.

We learnt some interesting facts from the instructor at Intel, Mr Kwok Lih, not just about the company but also the entire semiconductor industry on the whole. The company was founded by physicists Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (from whom Moore’s Law originated) and was originally called “NM Electronics”. But why not “MN Electronics”? Well, that would sound like “More Noise Electronics” - not something you would want in the electronics world.

Intel created the first commercially-available microprocessor in 1971 and is today a large multinational developer, manufacturer and supplier of leading-edge microprocessor chips to the worldwide PC Industry. However, the company does not just focus on churning out integrated circuits. Today we had the opportunity to visit a new division (created from the acquisition of Infineon Wireless Solutions business in Aug 2010) - Intel Mobile Communications.
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With the advent of smartphones and tablets, the mobile communication industry has grown to become a booming and flourishing industry, said to be worth approximately 10 billion dollars. The industry has come a long way, from manufacturing the obsolete unbreakable “brick phones” to the current 4G LTE Technology phones that are a trillion times better and faster than the “0.5G brick phones” of the past. I assume that Intel’s Mobile Communication’s plan is to integrate this wireless technology (through its silicon chip) into smart phones, netbooks, tablets and capture a share of the market.

At the briefing, I learned the importance of an automatic control system. An automatic control system is the arrangement of different physical elements connected in such a manner so as to regulate, redirect or command itself automatically. Automatic control systems are everywhere, from your phones to the car. Oh - here’s a fun fact for you - did you know that a car has over a 100 microcontroller chips in it?

Apart from learning about the mechanics of transistors and silicon chips, we also learnt about its history. The world’s first transistor was nothing close to the size of the ones we have in our computer chips today and it was basically a bunch of wires about the size of your palm (see picture below)

One of its inventors, William Shockley eventually became famous and started up Shockley Semiconductors, which eventually gave birth to all the semiconductor companies we know of today.

In addition to a history lesson, we got to learn how communication works. On the simplest base level, the flow diagram is like this:

Now the problem with using this is that there will always be more than 1 pair of transmitter/ receiver that needs to communicate using the same line, sometimes simultaneously. The solution? A telecommunication network that uses different frequencies to allow for multiple users communicating at once. Today, there are many different types of telecommunication networks, from computer networks, to satellite networks to the mobile/wireless networks. Without them, we would still be using the hard-wired telephone to communicate.

There was this theory the instructor brought up which I found quite interesting -- the more people use a network, the more useful it becomes. This is very true. Imagine a telephone network used by 2 people. Not so useful now is it? Increase the number to 20. It’s a little more useful. Now make it 20000. It becomes extremely useful!

But how does a network function? The picture below shows a great diagram of the workings of a cellular phone.

It is a little hard to explain the whole thing in detail, but basically, the diagram attempts to explain how a cell phone transmits and receives its information. When a person speaks into a microphone, an analog-to-digital converter converts the sound to electrical signals. A speech encoder removes all irrelevant pauses. A channel coder converts the signals to the correct frequency and then the signal goes through some optimisation and ciphering for security before it is sent out as radio waves. The receiving side does the exact opposite: detecting, deciphering and decoding the signal. The speech signal is deciphered from the radio carrier signal, decoded and finally converted back to analog audio so the user is able to hear.

(Watch the video of the instructor speaking here:

The lectures ended off with some topics of interest, from Big Data to Frugal Engineering to Cloud Computing, but the learning journey was far from over.

We visited the Mobile Testing Lab, where the Intel engineers tested microchips for use in mobile phones and other mobile devices. Unfortunately, I could not get any pictures of the boards and equipment used for testing. Here are some voice recordings of one Engineer explaining how they test the phones:

Following that, we proceeded to the Sound Lab, where Intel tests for sound optimisation in a small, sound-proof bunker, costing $400,000 to set up. It is covered in weird-looking but special sound absorbing foam (see pictures). Inside the bunker is a realistic looking head which was apparently the product of some peculiar pHD thesis. The reason for a soundproof bunker is so as to eliminate all background noise when testing. To ensure that the sound from the phone is optimal, they inject artificial noise into the output receiver so everything sounds more natural. I had the opportunity to stick my head into the bunker and it was a once in a lifetime experience. It is quite hard to explain the feeling - you have to experience it for yourself to truly understand it. The triangular foam pieces absorb noise, so one hears complete silence. That means no sound of wind, no trace of background whispers - complete silence. Normally your brain takes all background noise and naturally suppresses it - but when there is no background noise at all, your brain will not understand it and one would feel creepy.

Strange-looking, sound absorbing foam
Old “head” used for testing
The actual, realistic looking head inside the sound-proof bunker

The entire visit ended off with a community service event, where we helped to restore old laptops by cleaning up and installing new hard-drives into them. These laptops would then be given to a children’s home to help them learn how to use computers. I felt that knowing that you made a difference in a child’s life was the best way to wrap up an exciting and eye-opening learning journey at Intel !