Cyber-physical systems and smart cities

Today, I am in Seattle attending a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop for early career investigators on Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) in Smart Cities (link). There are 2 main purposes of this workshop:

  1. to share, develop, propose new research directions for smart cities, and
  2. to get to know the other early career researchers working in related areas.

Present at this workshop include people with funding power (NSF) and industry (Amazon), and we had the opportunity to see invited talks from non-profits (US Ignite, 100 Resilient Cities), city government (City of Seattle), and research groups (Netlab at Caltech, Urban@UW). It has been great to learn about efforts towards smart cities from all sorts of perspectives, from foundational research, funding calls, and knowledge transfer, to hackathons, city challenges, and creating environments for more collaboration.

Some insights I liked from today’s invited talks:

  • One key aspect to remember about cyber-physical systems is that there are underlying physical laws that cannot be designed away in these systems; and this leads to our key challenges of non-convexity, large-scale, uncertainty, and multi-timescales. — Steven Low, Netlab, Caltech, on designing controllers for power grids
  • “Inclusive innovation” is key to developing our urban systems, and it’s not just about supporting diversity; the greater the diversity in human specialization, the greater the potential value of exchanges in a system. — Vikram Janhdyala, University of Washington, Urban@UW
  • Think about the communication requirements of your work in CPS; how much bandwidth do you need for your work to affect real people in real cities? Our use of resources is way unsustainable. Now we want to see sensors, government data, open data, etc. used intelligently for providing transparency, changing behavior, and optimizing our resource use. We’re interested in applications for cities operating at 10 Mbps to 100 Gbps. — Glenn Ricart, US Ignite, on the science of smart cities
  • Shocks and stresses like natural disasters, industry collapse, disease outbreak, etc. can bring opportunities for cities to evolve and in some circumstances transform, so how to best use the opportunities is something to plan for. — Jose Baptista, Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities Project, on designing for… resilient cities
  • City government can move fast and break things. By trying a lot of different programs and efforts, by providing government data openly, Seattle was able to demonstrate the potential of collective brainpower for improving city services, e.g. crime prediction, green commuting, stolen vehicle tracking, computer literacy programs, service requests, etc. We often want to move fast, but we also need to make sure we’ve got good brakes, so we can slow down if needed. — Michael Mattmiller, CTO of Seattle

A theme among the invited speakers was an impatience for our research to reach people. There was a clear emphasis from NSF for research to have shorter-term impacts, e.g. 3-5 years, which they called “technological off-ramps.”

Among the lightning talks, I also noticed a few motifs in the ideas:

Addressing the lack of guarantees for CPS

  • Danielle Tarraf (Johns Hopkins) — certification for systems with limited alphabet and memory
  • Dong Wang (Note Dame) — how to provide data correctness guarantees from humans as sensors
  • Vasumathi Raman (Caltech) — providing control as a service via synthesizing correct CPS
  • Sam Coogan (UC Berkeley) — scalable formal methods for transportation systems

Addressing security of CPS

  • Lillian Ratliff (UC Berkeley) — mathematical foundations for the efficiency-vulnerability tradeoff in societal-scale CPS
  • Tamara Bonaci (UW) — cyber-security for teleoperated robots

Addressing neat new CPS applications

  • Tam Chantem (Utah State University) — CPS techniques for a semi-automated emergency response system
  • Min Kyung Lee (CMU) — studying how people react and respond to automated and algorithmic systems
  • Charlies Mydlarz (NYU) — full-scale CPS for acoustic map and noise mission control for New York City

Addressing challenges in the smart grid

  • Baosen Zhang (UW) — powering smart cities through highly decentralized controllers
  • Mahnoosh Alizadeh (Stanford) — coupling power and transportation networks via electric vehicles

With these themes and fresh ideas in mind, I look forward to all the groundbreaking research this week at CPSWeek 2015.

Special thanks to Jaime for feedback on the article!

Insightful advice for academia from WICSE

Today I attended the WISCE Berkeley-Stanford annual meetup and there was quite a bit I learned that I think applies to anyone in the field, so I wanted to share it here (along with more women-specific things). In particular, I found the academia panel to be very insightful and wise. Here were the key points.

First off, there are lots of resources specific to women + careers in EECS from an annual conference called Rising Stars in EECS. It’s neat because the talks are all online and the advice is quite specific to EECS and covers both academia and industry.

The panelists

The first invited panelist is Professor Ruzena Bajcsy (Berkeley), who has been in the field for 40+ years and thus has been through many of the shifts through the generation. The second panelist is Professor Tsu-Jae King Liu (Berkeley, current EECS department chair). She was immediately asked a bunch of questions about time management, chair responsibilities and whatnot, to which she says that of course being chair is a lot of work and easily takes up half of her time. The third and last panelist is Dr. Sadia Afroz (Berkeley, current postdoc).

Shifts in academia

When asked about what the biggest changes in academia have been, Ruzena commented that she’s noticed almost an obsession with money among young researchers… people are always talking about their salary, grant funding, etc. She cautioned (and reminded) us that she chose academia because she wanted to do her own projects, to think independently… not to be led where the money lies.

Advice for new faculty

Ruzena, now 80+ years old, still advises a full lab, comes to work every day, stays fully engaged in the community and the field. I find it remarkable and admirable and awesome. When asked the question “What advice would you give a new young faculty?” she gave the advice: you really want to have a job where every day you are happy to go to work. She commented that she is literally happy to come into the lab every day, including weekends (our meetup was on a Saturday). Specific to academia, she advised that if you are not curious, don’t like teaching, don’t like exploring wild ideas (and keep in mind that many of those ideas won’t work out), don’t do it.

A lot of these qualities actually ring true with me. I love teaching, mentoring; I like exploring new ideas, I like thinking about the future, and certainly I’m curious. But at the same time, it’s really important to me that the things that I work on see the light of day and actually make a real difference in people’s lives. So I asked the question: is curiosity in conflict with broad impact? It seems clear to me that, at some point, if you want to carry an idea out further and broader, then you need to spend the time and effort to invest in that single idea… which of course detracts from other curiosities. So then is academia still suitable if your life drive is the impact and results rather than the curiosity?

Ruzena’s response was actually unexpected but heart-warming and wise. So, Ruzena had just seen the talk I presented at this meetup, which was focused on developing large urban systems. In my particular context, she agreed that academia is probably best suited for this type of work because it can connect me with a wide group of people in many different related fields, and this is necessary since urban systems touch on so many different studies, e.g. EECS, civil engineering, urban planning, economics, public policy, etc. But more generally, she advised that everyone take advantage of the breadth of courses and resources that are available to us (at a top school); to explore a bit because anything narrow that we learn now will become out of date. And so it is prudent to pick up a breadth of skills.

Nice gals lose?

Often times, women (and actually many people in EECS) feel like they need to be more aggressive in order to succeed, but feel conflicted because it is counter to their personality. When asked the question of “Should I be more aggressive if I want to attain professorship?”, Liu responded that confidence is everything; that the key is to develop confidence in your own abilities, over time and to recall that often times people are just curious… there’s no need to get defensive. In order to have people recognize you as an individual rather than as a woman is to have confidence from within, display that confidence, and engage in conversations.

Advice for yourself?

The next question was: now, putting yourself back in your own shoes as a grad student, what’s one piece of advice that you’d give yourself, in order to succeed in academia? Ruzena responded succinctly: learn as much mathematics as you can. Liu’s advice was to really get to know your classmates; in fact, that also helps with building confidence. Sadia’s response was to not be afraid to ask questions, make the critical comments about other people’s work — to not assume that other people know better — because often times, you will be right. And I full-heartedly agree with all of the responses. The bottom line is really to gradually build up your own confidence.

Relatedly, what’s one thing you did right?

To this, Liu responded with seeking out a good mentor, one who is separate from your academic advisor. This person should believe in you, be able to provide emotional support. Ruzena, being the only female in robotics at the time (eeeesh) and immersed in a somewhat WASP-y culture (white anglo-saxon protestant), simply tried to make friends, looking for those (male) colleagues who were open to equality. She slowly built up a network and community for herself, slowly but surely. It wasn’t revolutionary by any means, she commented, but she was really supported by this network despite the opposing culture. What we have here now with WISCE is not far off. It’s a great community of like-minded people, and it’s really important that we stick together and support one another.

Thanks to Alex Lee for feedback on this article!