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!

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