Energy efficient computing has been a theme of Professor Iris Bahar’s for more than 20 years. She grapples with questions like how to automatically generate the logic needed to implement a function, or how to do that in a smart way in terms of area, performance, and power. By designing circuits in a smarter way so they run faster, they take fewer resources and consume less power to do the same computation.
Moving into the new engineering research center has impacted Bahar’s research in both physical and cognitive approaches. “My old lab was completely enclosed, and though it was a brightly painted room and a well-apportioned space, the lack of natural light was not conducive to allow for long hours of research,” she said. “Some of my lab students tended to work remotely. Here, the atmosphere is open, naturally lit, and bright, so students come in every day. Collaboration with them—and with others—is much easier.”
With this new space and the atmosphere ripe for chance interactions, Bahar is looking beyond her own research group at potential interactions. “This building was designed for both purposeful and chance interaction,” she said. Bahar would know. She served as chair of the community planning committee. “Both of those things are important, and it is what we envisioned – a bright, open, accessible space for people to gather, to chat, to socialize and to study.
“Now I’m looking at things at different levels—from higher level system issues to mobile computing issues, down to device level issues,” said Bahar. “How do we deal with power and reliability issues when we have shrunk our devices to just a few nanometers in size? What kinds of issues weren’t even issues 20 years ago?”
Specifically, her recent interests have led her to consider robotic system design, and how these systems can benefit from energy-efficient design techniques. As a mechanism for interdisciplinary learning, this migration into the robotics realm requires the skills of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, programming and design.
“Robots often have very strict form factors and may also be mobile; they operate on batteries that have limited capacity. It is a very constrained problem with distinct design issues. For instance, I just started looking at using robots for elder care because it’s not only expensive to give the elderly the care they need, but the type of care that is needed makes it even more difficult.” She references Brown’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative that is developing animatronic agents with advanced sensory, cognitive and communicative capacities. This may be a robotic stuffed cat or dog with the ability to remind patients of when to take medicines, or overcome other impairments.
“Using robots in a meaningful way can enhance lives. The constrained design problem makes it especially exciting for me. Researchers can use the foundation materials learned in core courses and apply it to some exciting topic that inherently requires an interdisciplinary approach and understanding.
“Effective robotic design also requires looking outside of engineering. It can be applied for elder care, medicine, space exploration and even art! There is a renewed sense of being able to reach outside our field of computer engineering. This new engineering space gives an energized feeling that encourages reaching beyond my usual boundaries.”