UI officially announced for $30 million computing research center

UI officially announced for $30 million computing research center

URBANA — It's official: A research center based at the University of Illinois will get $30 million to figure out ways to accommodate the next generation of computing.

The center — known as SONIC — will focus on increasing the information processing power and storage capacity of integrated circuits.

It aims to do so by unconventional means: building reliable computing systems in spite of unreliable transistor switches.

Transistor switches are the basic building blocks for all sorts of electronic devices including cell phones, tablets, laptop computers and cameras.

Thanks to technological improvements, those switches have been getting smaller over time. But now they're getting so small, the physics involved makes them unreliable.

"SONIC's innovative research agenda seeks to address this issue by treating the problem of computing using unreliable devices and circuits as one of communicating information over unreliable channels," a release from the UI's Coordinated Science Laboratory stated.

The center seeks to create a new paradigm — using information processing instead of data processing — so that electronic devices can continue to become more powerful and energy-efficient.

To do that, researchers plan to borrow elements of probability theory that have been used in the communications field.

Employing techniques based on probability theory, they expect to turn systems into statistical information processors that can "infer intent and handle uncertainty" while using less energy than traditional computers, the release said.

Naresh Shanbhag, a professor at the UI, will be the center's director. Word of the $30 million award was first mentioned — and subsequently reported in The News-Gazette — at Shanbhag's investiture last October as the Jack S. Kilby Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Altogether, the SONIC center will rely on 23 faculty researchers from universities across the nation, including Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Stanford and the University of California campuses at San Diego, Santa Barbara and Berkeley.

Much of the work will be done by UI researchers. Other Illinois faculty involved in the center include John A. Rogers from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Rob Rutenbar of the Department of Computer Science and Pavan Kumar Hanumolu, Rakesh Kumar and Eric Pop, all of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"This is a truly multidisciplinary research effort," said Andrew Singer, a theme leader in SONIC and a UI professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The Coordinated Science Laboratory, where four SONIC researchers are faculty members, will support SONIC's administrative activities.

SONIC stands for the Systems on Nanoscale Information fabriCs Center. It's part of a $194 million initiative called STARnet — the Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research network.

STARnet will provide money over the next five years to centers based at six universities.

The network is a public-private partnership funded by the Department of Defense and U.S. semiconductor and supplier industries.

Administering STARnet are the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) and the Semiconductor Research Corp., a university research consortium for semiconductor technology.

Three UI researchers are involved in two other STARnet research centers.

Douglas L. Jones, a UI professor of electrical and computer engineering, will contribute to the TerraSwarm Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

That center aims to address the potential of pervasive integration of smart networked sensors and actuators in the connected world.

Two professors in Electrical and Computer Engineering — Wen-mei Hwu and Deming Chen — will participate in the Center for Future Architectures Research, led by the University of Michigan.

That center aims to develop future scalable computer system architectures that use emerging circuit fabrics to make possible new applications.

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