Blending EE with CS: an Interview with Anantha Chandrakasan

Anantha Chandrakasan

the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering
Director, Microsystems Technology Laboratories

Postdoctoral associate Nathan Ickes (former grad student) left, worked with Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan, right, and Prof. Donald Troxel (not pictured) to develop the 6.111 lab-kit. Prof. Chandrakasan received the Eta Kappa Nu Undergraduate Guide Excellence in EECS Teaching Award for his contributions to undergraduate education, Spring, 2007. http://www.eecs.mit.edu/cgi-bin/announcements.cgi?page=2007/data/236.dat

Postdoctoral associate Nathan Ickes (former grad student) left, worked with Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan, right, and Prof. Donald Troxel (not pictured) to develop the 6.111 lab-kit. Prof. Chandrakasan received the Eta Kappa Nu Undergraduate Guide Excellence in EECS Teaching Award for his contributions to undergraduate education, Spring, 2007.

Q. Can you comment on how education in EECS has evolved, particularly from the stand-point of the blending of EE and CS in the real world and talk about opportunities moving forward?

Anantha Chandrakasan: As the design and implementation of integrated circuit blocks mature, the problems and focus shift from just optimizing the basic component technology and building blocks to system level design and optimization. Looking at emerging applications such as self-powered bio-medical electronics or next-generation low-power multimedia devices, provides an excellent opportunity in optimizing at all levels of system design including devices and circuits, architectures, algorithms, software and networking.

Our students are in a unique position to solve these emerging challenges given the broad exposure at an early stage to both hardware and software concepts. The new core courses provide a hands-on view of system design focusing on robotics, cell phone technology, etc. I have been amazed at the projects that students conceive and implement in 6.111 (Introductory Digital Systems Laboratory). Working in groups, students put together complex systems that involve an excellent blend of both hardware (sensors and interfaces, digital signal processing, wireless communication, etc.) and software (innovative algorithms, networking, etc.). It is truly impressive that they can synthesize both EE and CS technologies together. Design methodology has come a long way in the past 25 years moving from discrete TTL logic to writing software in a hardware description language and “pushing” a button to reconfigure logic gates and wires in an FPGA. Yet, understanding the core technology and concepts is critical in implementing next generation systems.

Q. As head of MTL you have continued to build the relationship of MTL faculty and staff researchers with industry–spearheading new initiatives (low power wearable medical devices) and a new energy initiative, to name a few. How does this working relationship influence both teaching and research for your students (and faculty) and how does it add to the EE-CS blend we are talking about?

The Microsystems Technology Laboratories has a rich history of partnering with semiconductor and more recently with system companies. Our students greatly benefit by getting exposed to practical design considerations, access to advanced technology nodes and intellectual property cores, and direct collaborations. The design of emerging energy efficient systems will require even closer interactions between academia and industry. Collaboration allows us to tackle problems and implement systems that we could not otherwise (e.g., due to complexity). For example, we developed a low-power processor with Texas Instruments which demonstrated our low-voltage circuits in a large scale platform. Industrial collaboration also plays an important role in EECS education as we get case studies of state-of-the-art techniques and practical approaches. We also greatly benefit from active engagement with visitors from industry in final student course projects.

Examples of collaboration with industry can be found at the MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) website (MIT certificates are required) June 3, 2010 story: “Ramping Up on Low-Energy, MTL Pursues Low-Power, Energy-Efficient, Integrated Circuits and Systems” and see Technology Review Oct. 27, 2010 “Milliwatts with Mega Impact” for more information about Anantha Chandrakasan’s research.

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One Response to “Blending EE with CS: an Interview with Anantha Chandrakasan”

  1. Mike Mayhew says:

    In your article you state that, “The design of emerging energy efficient systems will require even closer interactions between academia and industry”. In the light of the last financial downturn has your interface to the industrial sector suffered while companies make the necessary cut backs to stay alive? I note yet again that today another large electro/mechanical company in the aeronatical sector has downsized and made 3600 staff redundant.This must surely impact your progress somewhat!