ASU engineers to aid national efforts to advance computing for 2025 and beyond


Erik Wirtanen

Artificial intelligence is already here: You can buy a car today that warns against an unsafe lane change or slams on the breaks before you know you are in danger. Still, we’re years away from realizing the full potential of AI and other advanced technologies. But researchers are hard at work to make it happen.

Three electrical engineering professors in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering will be joining leading faculty from other top engineering schools across the nation in prestigious new research centers that will lay the foundation for technological innovation in the next decade.

Professor Yu (Kevin) Cao and Assistant Professors Shimeng Yu and Jae-sun Seo are co-principal investigators in two Joint University Microelectronics Program, or JUMP, research centers. A project of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, JUMP is a consortium of technology corporations and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is funding five-year exploratory research projects focused on electronic technologies and circuits, sub-systems and multi-scale systems. The centers are expected to generate new approaches that will fuel commercial and defense opportunities in 2025 and beyond.

Cao and Seo are part of the Purdue University-led Center for Brain-inspired Computing Enabling Autonomous Intelligence known as C-BRIC. Yu will be working within the Applications and Systems-Driven Center for Energy-Efficient Integrated NanoTechnologies, known as ASCENT, based at the University of Notre Dame. The six centers selected by the SRC are being funded at $30 million each over five years beginning Jan. 1, 2018.

“Being part of these two SRC-JUMP teams represents a major step forward for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, where we can help the largest semiconductor industries plot paths forward to enable new hardware for advanced computing,” said Professor Paul Westerhoff, vice dean of research and innovation.  

Cao, who is the only ASU faculty member to have been part of SRC research initiatives in the past, said that having three professors involved in these centers is testament to the dramatic increase in the research strength of the Fulton Schools. Recruitment over the past five years has brought promising young scholars to the schools, including Cao’s two JUMP colleagues. That research muscle will grow with the JUMP funding, as the electrical engineering doctoral program expands to support the research.

Cao said his work will help to build a bridge between biology and electrical engineering. Self-driving cars and smart phone voice recognition are possible today because of powerful computing capability, he said, but they are “energy hungry” and relatively slow.

“Those machines use several hundred watts and are not fast enough — they need hundreds of milliseconds to respond if something happens,” he says. In his research, he will be working with neuroscientists around the country to learn from nature how to make machines smarter, faster and more energy efficient. A honey bee uses five to six orders of magnitude less energy to make navigational decisions than a smart machine, he points out: “How can they do that?”

“AI will make a dramatic change to our society, and C-BRIC will do some of the fundamental work to enable it,” he said.

Seo is among the C-BRIC researchers who will work on intelligent hardware design, including the use of neuromorphic fabrics, which has been a focus of his research for several years. He will be collaborating with neuroscientists and algorithm researchers to come up with ideas that are inspired by the way the brain works.

Seo’s proposed project is aimed at investigating so-called “in-memory computing” a step further to resolve some of the challenges of distributed intelligence. Conventional design separates memory (data) and logic (computation): Data in memory must be read out to be processed. He will study integrating new computing methods inside the memory to make the hardware devices — such as drones and wearable technologies — operate faster and more energy efficiently.

That work will be combined with new bio-inspired approximation and compression methods that Seo will develop to address the power and area constraints of portable systems. He is looking for new ways to selectively compute logic and compress memory, so that tasks can be completed more efficiently, both in terms of energy and area.

Yu is a co-investigator in ASCENT, one of the two so-called horizontal centers: the ones that will create the technological foundations needed for the advanced applications developed in the other four centers, such as C-BRIC. ASCENT researchers will develop the materials and devices needed to run those applications.

In the past, Yu said, processing power and speed has been the bottleneck of computing, but in the new landscape of cognitive computing and machine learning the challenges have changed. “Big data means big memory to support those big workloads,” Yu said. “The processor must wait for the data to come from the memory. The data transfer to the processor is the new bottleneck.”

Yu said that ASCENT will work on removing the bottleneck by integrating memory with processing. The conventional 2-D horizontal configuration is constrained by bandwidth limits, so researchers propose stacking memory on top of the processor in a 3-D fashion, bringing the data so close that it doesn’t have to be transferred.

“We want to physically revolutionize the system from processor-centric to memory-centric,” he explained. That will include prototyping and fabricating the new hardware using the advanced nanoelectronic technologies and emerging materials. Yu will be working on the modeling frameworks that will help the engineers evaluate the benefits of the new 3-D computing paradigm over the old one.

Written by Elizabeth Farquhar