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August 7, 2009
By John Trent
Fred Harris, a professor of computer science and engineering, and three graduate students made a powerful impression upon Nevada U. S. Sen. and Majority Leader Harry Reid and a host of other congressional representatives and staff on July 8-9 in Washington, D.C., with a presentation on Cyber-Physical Systems.
“The amazing things that I have been able to watch here are just the tip of the iceberg of what the future holds,” Sen. Reid said of the presentation. He specifically cited Harris and the three Computer Science and Engineering graduate students – Roger Hoang, Richard Kelley and Sohei Okamoto – for their excellent research.
The research on such systems spans multiple areas of scientific endeavors. Harris spoke on work being done by multiple departments in the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno to design smarter power delivery systems with the goal of making sure that surprise events in the power grid don’t lead to brownouts and blackouts in large regions of the country.
Okamoto, a Ph.D. student of faculty member Sergiu Dascalu, showed off research being done by the University and the Desert Research Institute throughout the state on Cyber-Physical Systems for the environment. These include a network of sensors to detect and measure earthquakes in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, sensors to track the environmental consequences of activities at the Nevada Test Site, and environmental monitoring systems that deliver information to decision-makers and the public in the blink of an eye, guaranteeing that the best and most relevant information available is needed.
Along slightly different lines, Hoang, a Ph.D. student of Harris, presented research linking neuroscience and computation, describing work done by the College of Engineering and the University of Nevada School of Medicine to simulate neurons and larger structures in the brain. Ongoing work with the simulator is dedicated not only to basic research and robot control, but to the study of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and autism. Hoang also showed how scientists can use advanced computer graphics and virtual reality equipment such as the new six-sided CAVE facility at DRI to visualize their work and speed up the process of research.
While Hoang talked about brain simulations that could in the future be used to create intelligent machines, Kelley, a Ph.D. student of faculty member Monica Nicolescu, described his work in developing robots that use social information to understand and predict humans’ behavior and intentions. While the ultimate goal of such research is robots that have social skills and can fluently interact with humans, Kelley described more immediate uses of such technology, including surveillance, security and smart homes that are capable of assisting the elderly.
Reid was impressed with what he saw: how Cyber-Physical Systems hold the potential to bring about a revolutionary change in all aspects of Americans’ lives. The Senator noted that the type of talent and creativity he had seen was worth the attention of all Americans.
“If we had in this room a bunch of athletes … this place would be loaded with spectators,” he said. “Instead today we have a lot of smart people from our very finest universities … Johns Hopkins … Carnegie Mellon …” Then Reid paused for a moment, then added the best for last, with a smile: “… and the University of Nevada … People who are going to change the world and are already changing the world. You’re changing the world before our very eyes.”