SiTime outlines top tech trends in 2024

4th January 2024
Paige West

Artificial intelligence (AI) has dominated headlines throughout 2023 and captivated our imagination with pivotal breakthroughs ranging from advancements in large language models and natural language processing to the deployment of AI in healthcare, finance, and autonomous systems.

AI is a powerful megatrend that will impact humanity in ways that have not been predicted yet. For this reason, heated debates on AI regulation and ethical considerations will continue to fuel public interest and discussion in 2024. An underlying technology that threads throughout AI-driven advancements is the need for precision timing. Here are six market-moving tech trends that will reshape industries and impact our lives in 2024 and beyond.

1. Precision timing: powering what’s next 

Historically, system developers have focused on elements like CPU performance and memory capacity. They now understand that precise timing synchronisation, whether in AI computing, IoT networks, 5G infrastructure, or advanced automotive systems, paves the way for novel innovations that were previously unimaginable. This paradigm shift underscores that while all system components matter, timing technology deserves greater recognition and value than it has traditionally received. Precision timing has come to the forefront of system design. Growing demand for higher performance, lower latency and greater reliability is driving new deployment architectures for timing technology. For example, networking, communications, and computing systems are being deployed in more locations under less controlled conditions subject to environmental stressors such as shock, vibration, and temperature changes, requiring robust and resilient precision timing components. Today’s electronics must perform flawlessly in the harshest environments. Reliable operation of these devices and networks requires precision timing – the heartbeat of all electronics.

Precision timing has evolved rapidly in recent years to meet the demands of high-speed, time-sensitive networks. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology is already a game-changer in the realm of precision timing. MEMS-based precision timing is disrupting a century-old legacy timing technology – quartz. Silicon MEMS timing solutions are about one-twentieth the size of quartz devices and can deliver nanosecond-level accuracy – one billionth of a second – offering far more precision and a wider variety of potential use cases. They also work better under a host of environmental stressors, such as vibration and very hot or cold temperatures, driving their adoption in applications like 5G networks and automotive systems that require ruggedised electronic components.

As our IoT devices, mobile apps, computers, and networks generate more data than ever, technology advancement hinges on capturing and using the avalanche of data more efficiently. This requires precise, reliable timing and synchronisation within the processor, among board-level components and modules, and across network nodes. Precision timing is crucial in demanding applications like 5G networks and data centre interconnects, requiring nanosecond accuracy for data transfers. As the world increasingly revolves around data, the need for well-orchestrated precision timing technology becomes more critical each year.

2. Synchronising AI computing

As AI continues to be deployed in new ways and in existing technologies – from AI-driven automotive safety systems to intelligent personal assistants and enterprise-scale chatbots – timekeeping technology will provide the steady heartbeat that’s essential to the performance and reliability of AI-driven applications. Precision timing technology, for example, is crucial for AI computing, especially in advanced applications like generative AI, neural networks, and AI vision. These intelligent, connected technologies heavily rely on synchronised data processing and communication between numerous components. In tasks such as neural network training and real-time AI vision processing, data must be precisely timed and synchronised to support the higher speeds and greater computational capabilities of these demanding applications. This synchronisation is fundamental for achieving optimal performance and unlocking the full potential of AI, pushing the boundaries of what the technology can accomplish and transforming how we live, learn and work.

3. Driving advances in automotive safety 

Precision timing is the heartbeat of automotive innovations that keep drivers safe and connected. The number of precision timing chips required by cars continues to grow. In 2018, vehicles used up to 20 timing chips. Today’s cars have up to 60 timing chips, and that number will likely expand to 100 timing chips by 2027. The compute power and connectivity requirements for automotive electronics are expected to outpace the growth of the overall automotive market. Key drivers of this growth include electronic components for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), autonomous driving capabilities, EV applications and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications. These advances are redefining the safety, convenience and infotainment features built into today’s smart, connected cars. For example, data in autonomous driving applications must be synchronised so that the vehicles can turn, stop, or accelerate with the utmost precision. Vehicles equipped with ADAS, and other safety features require fast, reliable communications across automotive Ethernet backbones and over wireless networks. These complex systems require numerous sensors for vision, proximity, temperature, pressure, and other functions. A typical car has at least 30 sensors operating across major domains including powertrain, chassis, body, and safety. Modern luxury cars may contain from 100 to 200 sensors, generating terabytes of data for ADAS computers. As the adoption of ADAS and vehicle electrification accelerates, the need for precision timing technology in automotive applications has become increasingly important to synchronise these data-intensive systems. 

4. Expanding 5G networks and services

5G continues to be adopted across the world as the mainstream mobile communications technology. After hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, 5G network operators see greater potential to monetise their investments as 5G adoption expands from the consumer subscriber base to enterprise and industrial markets. 5G technology enables 10x faster connectivity than 4G LTE, 40x lower latency and 100x more connected devices. Even higher levels of performance are on the horizon as the industry defines next-generation specifications for 5G-Advanced, 6G and high-frequency millimetre wave (mmWave) technology. To achieve these performance goals, next-gen radios must be deployed closer to the user. Radio equipment may be mounted on poles and buildings or placed in roadside boxes – all locations subjected to harsher conditions, making resiliency ever more important. All nodes in 5G networks must be precisely synchronised with increasing accuracy to maximise performance and reliability. A synchronized 5G network relies on multiple, redundant timing sources to ensure continuous operation. One of these sources is an ultra-stable local oscillator, typically an OCXO, which will ‘holdover’ the network and ensure accurate time and continued operation when a reference clock input becomes unavailable. 5G network nodes must be synchronised within hundreds of nanoseconds, which is 10x more stringent than required by 4G LTE. Past radio architectures using separate timing devices for the radio and for synchronisation are inadequate for these performance demands. Emerging precision timing platforms will integrate these two clocking functions, simplifying the radio timing architecture and delivering on the promise of 5G bandwidth and coverage.

5. Massive IoT and intelligence at the Edge

Worldwide IoT spending also reached a staggering $1.1 trillion in 2023 and will continue to grow in 2024. Innovative IoT wireless standards like Matter and Wi-Fi HaLow are accelerating IoT adoption by enhancing interoperability and connectivity among smart home devices. Precision timing will also add value to the IoT by providing the smallest, most reliable and lowest power clocks, and oscillators available. IoT applications that would have been unimaginable or infeasible a decade ago are now being designed and brought to market. Today’s IoT ecosystems rely on precision timing technology to synchronise connectivity. From IP cameras to video doorbells to smart LED lighting, tens of billions of smart, connected devices touch all aspects of our lives. Many of these devices include powerful Edge processors with built-in neural processing units, combined with short-range wireless and/or cellular Internet connectivity. The era of Edge intelligence is underway as AI and machine learning (ML) capabilities migrate from the Cloud to IoT devices. In 2024 and the years ahead, we will see the dramatic growth of the intelligent, connected Edge. By 2025, an estimated 50 billion connected devices will generate enormous amounts of data. This wealth of data, which is growing exponentially, can be leveraged with actionable intelligence to benefit people, networks, and businesses. Precision timing will continue to provide the heartbeat of the IoT, synchronising digital components and Cloud-to-Edge networks.

6. Spatial computing comes of age

Spatial computing, an emerging technology that blends the physical and digital worlds to create immersive experiences, revolves around the concept of mapping digital information onto physical spaces, enabling users to interact with digital content in natural, intuitive ways. Spatial computing leverages augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) devices, specialised processors, sensors, and advanced algorithms. At its core, spatial computing enables the seamless integration of digital data, 3D models, and interactive elements into the real world, enriching our understanding and interaction with our surroundings. The technology holds immense promise by enabling more engaging user experiences in various domains, from gaming and entertainment to education and training. Spatial computing enhances the gaming experience by immersing players in virtual worlds that blur the lines between physical and digital realms. Many industries, including architecture, manufacturing, and healthcare (e.g., 3D models of patient anatomy and simulations of medical procedures), will benefit from spatial computing by improving visualisation, design, and collaboration. Precision timing technology plays a pivotal role in advancing spatial computing by synchronising data processing across spatially distributed components and ensuring seamless coordination among sensors, AR/VR devices, and processing units. This synchronisation is essential for accurate spatial mapping, real-time tracking, and immersive experiences, ensuring that spatial data is presented in perfect harmony.

Looking ahead

From ancient Egyptian sundials to the first maritime chronometer invented in the 1730s to state-of-the-art timing systems for GPS navigation, timekeeping technology has been crucial to humanity throughout history. Today’s precision timing technology is even more vital to our tech-driven lives as we embrace next-generation technologies including AI, automotive sensing, 5G communications, IoT connectivity, and spatial computing. SiTime’s silicon MEMS-based precision timing technology accelerates innovation to help solve difficult design challenges. Recognising the importance of timing technology, engineers are thinking differently about their system designs. They are realising how much more can be accomplished with precision timing to address the many design challenges presented by our increasingly digital world in the years ahead.

Elizabeth Donley, Chief of the time and frequency division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal agency tasked with creating standards for the timing industry, summed up the impact of MEMS-based precision timing in a recent Wall Street Journal article: “Silicon timing solutions are so low power and so small that you can find applications for them everywhere. They’re not just improving the performance of quartz – they’re enabling things that are new and could never be done before.”

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