back to article ARM's ultra-low-power fridge-puter chips: Just what the CIA ordered

Prototypes of a new tiny, ultra low-power ARM-licensed processor will be demonstrated at an engineering conference in California next week. The chips are so small and energy efficient that they're aimed at wirelessly hooking up kitchen appliances, light bulbs and 'leccy meters to your network. And to the CIA. Will this lead to …


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  1. TeeCee Gold badge

    You're kidding...........right?

    " an age when parents set up Twitter and Tumblr accounts for their newborns...."

    Just when I think things cannot possible get more mind-bendingly idiotic than they already are, I see something like that.

    Has someone been replacing the Kool-aid with Brawndo?

  2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    "Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled"

    So says "King" David Petraeus, the guy who managed to lose track of about 190'000 freshly imported AKMs in Iraq. Oh well. []

    Let us conclude with the following gem. Guess by whom:

    Back in the kitchen he fished in his various pockets for a dime, and, with it, started up the coffeepot. Sniffing the – to him – very unusual smell, he again consulted his watch, saw that fifteen minutes had passed; he therefore vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob and pulled on the release bolt.

    The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please."

    He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. "I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you."

    "I think otherwise," the door said, "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt."

    In his desk drawer he found the contract, since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to this door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee - not a tip.

    "You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

    From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt's money-gulping door.

    "I'll sue you," the door said as the first screw fell out.

    Joe Chip said, "I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it."

    1. mhenriday
      Big Brother

      Just a moment !

      The protagonist of this brief sketch presumably lives in the United States (very possibly in a «gated community») and he's never yet been sued by a door (or a gate) ? Destroy All Monsters, I fear your story is sadly lacking in verisimilitude....


  3. Def Silver badge

    Kitchen Appliances

    Ok, I'll bite...

    Why the hell would I want any of my kitchen appliances online? I mean, really...

    I can't load my laundry remotely anymore than I can take it out and hang it up remotely. So why does my washing machine need an internet connection? It already has a timer, so I can load it up and set it to finish around the time I'll be home.

    Why does my dish washer need to be online? I switch it on when it's full. And if I can't fill it remotely I'll always be there at the moment it does become full.

    I don't need to constantly adjust the thermostat in the fridge either - I do that maybe twice a year: right before I go on holiday, and right after I come back.

    Taking food out the freezer and sticking it in the microwave is the simplest form of 'cooking' there is and I rarely do that. (If you can even call it cooking - it's more like the barest form of survival if you ask me.) And even if I did, I certainly wouldn't be able to do it remotely.

    So why? Why do we need these things connected to the net? Really, I want to know...

    1. BillG

      Re: Kitchen Appliances

      Nobody wants their kitchen appliances online and no appliance manufacturer is planning that. Putting "kitchen appliances online" is something you say to inexperienced investors and to impress the media.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Kitchen Appliances

      If they aren't connected to the net how are they going to download security updates and anti-virus software?

      1. Fatman

        RE: download security updates and anti-virus software?

        God help those poor bastards who use Windows for Microwaves; when they find out their microwave oven gets infected.

        It could provide a whole new meaning to "nuke" (meaning 'to microwave').

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Kitchen Appliances - It's not for you to want it!

      Facebook, Google, Utility company, Insurance company, government agencies, law enforcement, Internet provider, and others are all impatiently waiting for all the data you leave behind. You certainly don't need to start your washing machine via Internet but I'm sure your grocery store would love to know how many times, how much and what kind of detergent you use.

      This is Web 2.0, folks, in case you didn't know.

    4. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Kitchen Appliances

      Your fridge doesn't need it, but it would be handy for things like your fridge to temporarily reduce their power consumption. Like an internal combustion engine, the electrical grid and power stations are more efficient and reliable if their load is more constant and predictable.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Dave 126 - Re: Kitchen Appliances - Not predictable, my leg!

        You can see for yourself a vast majority of the population is at home between 6am to 9am and between 5pm and 10pm during weekdays. Isn't this predictable enough for you ?

        As for being constant, every month my energy invoice stays at the same level (in terms of consumption of course because the amount in $ is steadily increasing).

        No, what they want is to extract more money from you with differentiated pricing. Yes, the price per kWh would be cheaper between 2am and 5am but they know for sure you are not going to wake up in the middle of the night and start doing the laundry and cooking for your family. Don't bother telling me about the intelligent appliances, it's you that will have to empty the washing machine and load it with different types and colors of laundry and it's you that will have to constantly watch the simmering pot and stir it from time to time. Zigbee, Bluetooth and all other gadgets will no do it for you.

    5. Richard Plinston

      Re: Kitchen Appliances

      With variable rate electricity pricing* the various appliances will be able to determine when money can be saved. Dishwashers, washing machines, storage heaters, hot water systems and some others will be able to reduce household costs by operating when electric power is cheapest. This is usually when the generation capacity is currently exceeding usage. For example when wind power is available overnight.

      Of course if everyone tries this then it won't work well. Price drops and suddenly demand skyrockets.

      * you may not have this available in your area.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Kitchen Appliances

      I don't want them 'online' on the 'net as such but it do think it might be handy to be able to monitor them and have alerts when the washing machine/dish washer finishes so I can re-load them or the 'fridge/freezer door is left open or the oven has heated up.

      I might even be interested in a smart fridge/freezer that, if asked, can suggest recipe ideas for the contents or tell me what I need to buy because my partner or the kids have finished the last of the apple juice/butter/carrots etc. and forgotten to add them to the shopping list.

      All things that can easily be done manually I agree and are trivially simple to do but if I can harness a little tech to make my life a little more organised/efficient then why not?

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: Kitchen Appliances

        If your house is big enough that you need your washing machine to contact you over the internet to tell you that it's finished, surely you have servants to do the washing anyway?

        If I want to know if mine's finished, I stick my head round the door. If I can't hear it running, it's finished. There's a thing on the wall called a "clock" that tells me when it's about time to stick my head round the door.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Kitchen Appliances

          Obviously you missed the last line of my comment, here, I'll repeat it for you because I'm nice like that;

          'All things that can easily be done manually I agree and are trivially simple to do but if I can harness a little tech to make my life a little more organised/efficient then why not?'

          It's not because I can't or won't check manually, it's because sometimes I don't, often when I'm working in my box room office or watching a film or otherwise distracted a small alert to tell me I can go and load the machine with a new pile of washing or close the freezer door might be useful.

          I don't particularly want it to be on the 'net, in fact I'd probably prefer it not to be (I don't want my t-shirts boil washed by some 14 year old script kiddie from Croydon thanks) but seeing as TCP/IP is ubiquitous then it makes sense for them to talk it and use the network I already have.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Memo to CIA boss : Stop salivating!

    What goes for you also goes for Chinese/Russian/Iranian/etc intelligence gathering services. If I were you I'd check closely the water cooler and every plant in your office building.

  5. BillG

    Inaccurate and Wrong

    Article says: "These cores are expected to be wrapped up in flash and RAM in the order of scores of kilobytes, driven by a clock frequency of at most 50MHz, and draw 9 millionths of an amp per MHz on a 1.2V supply."

    Most of these low power embedded applications require clock frequencies of less than 8MHz. And "9 millionths of an amp per MHz on a 1.2V supply"" is a whopping 9uA/MHz, which is hot and a lot - there are 8-bit and 16-bit microcontrollers out there that require less than 10% of that massive power draw.

    ARM is targeting a market they can't win. No matter what you do to a 32-bit, you can build an 8-bit that will use one-quarter the power, period. That's physics.

    These applications are NOT about power, they are about EFFICIENCY and 32-bit will always be less efficient that a 16-bit or especially an 8-bit.

    1. Franklin
      Thumb Up

      Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

      On the other hand...

      I for one would love to play with one of these things once someone slaps 'em onto a cheap PCB with a USB breakout and ports an Arduino-compatible programming library over to them, which I'm sure someone will likely do not long after they're released.

      They might or might not make it in the world of ultra-low-power embedded systems--time will tell--but they sound like they'd make fun toys.

    2. Wilco 1
      Thumb Down

      Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

      Yes efficiency is what matters. And 32-bit RISC is actually more efficient: it takes far fewer instructions and cycles to execute the same task as an 8/16-bit MCU (most are very CISCy and extremely slow, needing many cycles to execute even a single instruction and many more instructions to do a simple task). So although a 32-bit RISC CPU needs a bit more power per cycle, it also does a lot more work every cycle, so it wins by a large margin on power efficiency - as the graph in the article shows.

      Also, a 32-bit MCU won't use 4 times as much power as an 8-bit MCU. Claiming that is just stupid. To start, 2/3 of power is outside the core. In reality only a bare 32-bit ALU will consume ~4 times as much power as an 8-bit one. Everything else, fetch, decode and all control logic will consume the same amount of power. Then there are the architectural differences. For example Thumb-1 codesize is typically smaller than the 8/16-bitters, especially when comparing compiled code. That means less energy is spent on fetch and decode. And the large number of registers means fewer memory accesses, which use a lot of energy too.

      1. BillG

        Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

        @Wilco1, everything you wrote is wrong because what you wrote is 20 years out of date.

        1. A RISC DOES need more instructions than a CISC to do work. C'mon, that's the classic RISC vs CISC debate right there!!! A RISC is a ***REDUCED*** Instruction Set. Especially today - look at all the single-cycle CISC microcontrollers out there. A CISC machine can get it done with less instructions and less cycles.

        2. A 32-bit core most definitely does NOT do more work than an 8-bit core. Control-oriented applications work on 8-bit data, so in a 32-bit you are wasting 24-bits on every clock cycle.

        3. 32-bit microcontrollers use 4-times the power of an 8-bit because a 32-bit has 4-times the data paths. That's 4x more logic outside the core to switch, period.

        4. You usually need a 32-bit core when you have to manage many threads that require a sophisticated RTOS. THAT is why you need 32-bits - to manage 32-bit status registers and semaphores! But this is also where 32-bit falls down because 8-bit can do bit manipulation and semaphore operations more efficiently than 32-bit.

      2. BillG

        Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

        "And 32-bit RISC is actually more efficient: it takes far fewer instructions and cycles to execute the same task as an 8/16-bit MCU (most are very CISCy and extremely slow, needing many cycles to execute even a single instruction and many more instructions to do a simple task)"

        The above is so very very wrong it's clear you don't understand the issues. I can't believe you actually wrote that.

        If bullsh*t were music you'd be a symphony.

    3. Bronek Kozicki

      Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

      "32-bit will always be less efficient that a 16-bit or especially an 8-bit."

      not always. Only when dealing with 8-bit data; and you don't do that often since that's really small - useless for addressing more than 256 bytes of memory or floating point data. Also most instruction sets would need more than one 8bit word. Yes 16bit goes long way towards addressing some limitations, but the floating point.

      1. BillG

        Re: Inaccurate and Wrong

        "Only when dealing with 8-bit data; and you don't do that often"

        Um, what??? What planet are you on? Almost all embedded applications work with 8-bit data because you are dealing with embedded CONTROL-oriented applications, NOT MATH-oriented applications.

        Outside of cryptology and some motor control applications, 32-bit will ALWAYS be less efficient that a 8-bit in EMBEDDED applications ALWAYS.

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Oh that IT were so easy and everyone acted like everyone else ... and as predicted

    "In the digital world, data is everywhere, as you all know well. Data is created constantly, often unknowingly and without permission. Every byte left behind reveals information about location, habits, and, by extrapolation, intent and probable behaviour," said Petraeus.

    Yes, I would not think to disagree with that, but it is very simplistic and IT is easily exploited by anyone knowingly creating data to lead listeners/eavesdroppers/spooks to phorm any particular and peculiar view.

    To imagine that a third party extrapolation to arrive at a specific future possible event is more valid and more likely than another outcome, with the addition of imagined data/metadata which is really only nothing more than a wild educated guess based upon the intelligence, or lack of intelligence in the other party, is always going to be an inexact science telling everything and more about the spooky third party listener than anyone knowingly creating data for phishing and phorming.

    And one has to be aware that some data is deliberately shared to discover if there are any intelligence services capable of recognising intelligence services which are several degrees/levels more advanced than was ever thought possible.

    You know, the sort of services which the likes of a David Petraeus type organisation would be ideally looking for to stay way out ahead in the Great Game and leading any opposition or competition.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "will require a new class of in-place and remote sensors that operate across the electromagnetic spectrum"

    Frightening. So does this mean that before long, if they get their way, trees and lamp posts will be bugged at "likely" locations? Where do we draw the line? Cafe tables? Motorway services? Trains and buses? Standard equipment in the car is a camera with sound?

    Perhaps we ought to bug forests too so we can rule once and for all whether when a man says something in a forest and there is no woman to hear him, he is still wrong!

    1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      Re: Orwellian

      Haven't you noticed? The forests are already full of bugs. And spiders.

      Yes, the one with the insect repellent.

  8. A Non e-mouse Silver badge


    Am I the only person impressed that they've managed to design a 32-bit CPU with just 12,00 gates ?

    That seems tiny compared to modern CPUs & GPUs.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Impressed

      So who cloned Bill? I lost track after Dolly the Sheep.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You seem to've dropped a zero

      You don't need all that many gates for a cpu. For all those tricks to make it do as much as possible as fast as it can, though, you suddenly need a lot of gates. GPUs in particular don't just have a couple cores, they have a thousand or so, though each is rather simple and specialised in what it can do. Then, the gatecounts start to add up.

      12k gates is pretty nice but I recall reading about something similar in 8k gates. Probably one of those things ment for integration with FORTH since its primitives are low-level enough that they make for a good RISC core, if you don't mind implementing two stacks instead of one.

      Someone built his own cpu (magic-1, google it; blinkenlights! also net-connected), only 16bit but also only ~200 74xx chips, at maybe four gates a chip makes for less than a thousand gates for a full cpu. One thing it definitely doesn't do is manage more than one MIPS per MHz, quite a bit less, in fact. Modern cpus often do. They also heat the room a lot better.

      1. Chemist

        Re: You seem to've dropped a zero

        Charles Moore's original FORTH hardware design was only 4000 gates

        "The NC4016 is implemented using fewer than 4000 gates on a 3.0 micron HCMOS gate array technology"

        1. Wilco 1

          Re: You seem to've dropped a zero

          Yeah that's right, but FORTH CPUs are d e a d slow. The whole MISC idea (minimal instruction set computer, usually 8-16 instructions) is worse than CISC. I once read an article about a Forth guy being very proud of removing the subtract instruction and instead replacing every compare and subraction with x + ~y + 1. Yes that's 3 instructions rather than 1, not an efficiency improvement, but insanity given that subtract is extremely common.

          Long live Forth as a great example of how NOT to design an ISA/CPU/language!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Slow? So's this.

            Going for extremely low power consumption tends to do that. The question is then how much useful work it can do per cycle, or per miliwatt if you'd like, and whether that's good enough for the purpose. Embedded has always been forth's forte, and it certainly isn't bad at it.

            And the OISC idea isn't new, it's been implemented a few times. Your conclusion would be analogous to concluding anything written in C can't be any good because there's people that submit to the obfuscated C contest. Yeah, no.

            1. Wilco 1

              Re: Low power means Slow? Not at all...

              Cortex-M0+ takes 1 cycle for most instructions as you'd expect from a RISC (it's actually faster than running the same Thumb-1 code on the good old ARM7tdmi, the workhorse of the embedded world). That's a lot of work per clock, and exactly why it is so efficient.

              My point is that MISC and OISC (and to a lesser extent any stack machine) are bad ISAs and very bad compiler targets, which is why they tend to be inefficient, difficult to program for and unsuccessful as a result. There are no commercial Forth CPUs, the last crazy one I know of (IntellaSys SeaForth) went down without ever selling any chips - no surprise really.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Your point is not entirely honest.

                The HP 3000 was pretty successful for what it did. 'Stack' is a different way of thinking about things so if you try and shoehorn that into the regular compilers' targets, well, alright, I'll buy that's probably more trouble than it is worth. But that doesn't imply using the tool as it is ment to be used must therefore also be slow and terrible and such. It's more of a not well-known enough, and thus not enough market for it, issue.

                Where 'the market' will usually sort out the worst of the things it knows well (but not necessarily keep the best!), that goes a lot less for things it doesn't know well. There, everything not of the accepted pattern tends to die, good idea or not. The cpu market has been dominated by wintendo so thorougly and for so long that it's only now others are gaining serious foothold and widespread recognition. ARM is a good example of this, actually.

  9. bonkers

    good luck with that one, ARM..

    Much as I respect the Spawn of 6502, I can't see them winning the 8-bit world with a 32-bit machine. For starters, the idea that "the thermostat" takes a position of any sort is bonkers, hierarchy is there for a reason, to consider multiple inputs and to make just one decision. The protocol will be really heavy, where you could get away with almost nothing, like LIN or similar, over RF. For this reason you will need to include over-the-air update, which triples your size and adds hideous vulnerabilities, unless you want to go "signed" - another big headache and no guarantees.

    Look at the gross bandwidth of the source - thermostat - about 10 bits (3 sig.fig) every minute. Fridge similar. Light switch 1 bit every hour or so (OK there is a response time also) - what needs bandwidth?

    Texas Instruments (with whom I am not associated) have an interesting range of MSP430 super low power 16-bit MCU's coupled with excellent low power radio Tx/Rx..

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Kitchen appliances?

    That the CIA can find uses for ever tinier, more powerful sensor packages, that's pretty much a no-brainer. Also why "the internet of things" best stay yet another starry-eyed pipe dream, since the reality won't be all that nice for us, the naturally spied-upon. Though with RFID, smart meters, IP telly, data retention, and so on already upon us, it's a bit late to start saying "do not want". Limited mitigation is the best you can hope for now.

    What I don't get is why kitchen appliances need to be dragged in again. It's like that fancy fridge door screen: Quite a lot more useful anywhere BUT as a fridge door. What use is it to have reduced the power draw of the controller to mere milliwatts, when the entire appliance starts at a kilowatt? Tempting to write it down to more of that hopelessly uninspired marketeering and matching reporting, but who knows, maybe there is a good reason. Please explain.

    1. Fatman

      RE: What I don't get is why kitchen appliances need to be dragged in again.

      Why NOT?

      It is just another opportunity for the marketing droids to send you `targeted advertising`

      Image, for a moment, a "connected" refrigerator that senses when you remove a cold beverage from it. Thanks to the embedded RFID chip, your refrigerator knows what you drink, and a savvy (excuse me, SLEAZY is more appropriate here) advertiser can inform you of a sale on such beverage at your local mart.

      It is also likely that such a `smart` refrigerator can remind you of items that are getting a bit long in their 'use by' dates.

      Marketing droids would have the proverbial "orgasm" over the possibility of mining such data.

      1. LaeMing

        I won't be getting another smart fridge.

        My last one killed itself. It left a note. Sait it was tired of feeling so empty inside.

  11. Stephen Channell
    Thumb Up

    A little less paranoia…

    Whilst mass observation might be an ambition of spooks, it is more likely to be used for smaller cheaper robots for IED, observation droids or plain stock control.. (though I do like the idea of “you are not licenced to fire this weapon”).

    In a connected age when even smart-phones call home for updates and report usage, it is odd that a boiler does NOT send you (or your plumber) a message saying that carbon-monoxide levels are high, or that the smoke-alarm battery is low.. within a few short years, we won’t buy an appliance that is not “smart”.. take a look at to see the possibilities.

    Which is the greater threat to privacy: a fridge that knows how much beer you buy, or all that stuff you put of facebook?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A little less paranoia… - Obviously a creepy fridge!

      Because you can always sign out from Facebook but not from your fridge.

  12. JaitcH

    Don't count on using Smartmeters ...

    aince California, and several other states, make the installation of Smartmeters optional. It's likely people of interest to the CIA will demand old meters be retained.

    Another another small point, the CIA is prohibited fro operating in the USA.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      NSA isn't.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "the CIA is prohibited fro operating in the USA."

    And MI6 was reportedly prohibited from operating in the UK.

    So what? You think these folk care about rules? Wake up and smell the coffee.


  14. Wile E. Veteran
    Big Brother

    Sooner or later...

    Any technology which *can* be used for monitoring people *will* be used for monitoring people, sooner or later. Eschaeon, the "off-limits" room in the main telephone exchange, massive networks of CCTV cameras, license-plate readers....

    All are monitoring you _now_, Well-reported by mainstream media not just the tinfoil-hat brigade.

    Why should embedded sensors any different?

    Ah, George, you predicted date was just a _little_ too early.

  15. Tom Cooke

    Reality catches up with sci-fi

    Vernor Vinge - "A Deepness in the Sky" - one of the best portraits of what this technology will bring.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Reality catches up with sci-fi

      I was thinking about that book too, when I read the article! Mesh networks of incredibly efficient but individually-dumb sensors... with secret hidden back doors for those that know about then :D Awesome author.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Guess the brand X rivals?

    I'll go first...

    A: TI MSP430, B: Renesas M8C, C: Microchip PIC10 series , D: Atmel ATMegaX

  17. Wupspups

    Forget the CIA.

    Tesco et al are probably rubbing their hand in joy at the thought of this.

    Get punters to associate fridge, microware etc.. with their loyalty cards. Supermarkets RFID tag their goods. Punter loads fridge with RFID tagged goods, fridge reports back to supermarket chain when item is put in fridge and is removed. Supermarket gets really good source of data to do with what they feel like.

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