The March of Technology

04/12/2011 2:50 PM KresgeRodney A. Brooks, Founder, Chairman and Chief Technical Officer, Heartland Robotics; John Hennessy, President, Stanford University; Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MITDescription: Moore's law and energy efficiency emerge as themes in these two lectures on past and future progress in microprocessors and robotics.

Back in the old days, recalls Rodney Brooks, people were not allowed near computers, because the smoke from human cigarettes might damage delicate machinery. Then humans had to steer clear of robots, lest they come out on the losing end of an encounter with a hulking machine limb. But following the explosion of PC and portable computing technology, the last 10 years have brought robots into close proximity with people. Brooks says more than nine thousand robots now serve in the U.S. military, and six million work in human homes -- including his own line at iRobot.

Brooks attributes this proliferation of AI aides to "IT exponentials that beget other exponentials." Leaps in processing speed enormously aided in the development of essential robotics systems, such as vision, machine learning, wireless networking, and speech understanding. He shows a robot, "The Cart," from Stanford's AI lab circa 1979. The device relied on a giant mainframe (shared with the music department), and moved 20 meters in six hours. By 2005, Stanford's AI vehicle Stanley was traveling 200 kilometers in six hours. Brooks runs videos of the latest robotic achievements, such as following a human's gaze and commands and delicately manipulating objects. Roboticists have a way to go before their creations can recognize a class of objects such as a shoe and pick out speech in a noisy background.

Much of these advances will depend on a continuation of the progress in computing power that has been driving the digital revolution. John Hennessy believes that we will soon reach an "incredible inflection point," when desk"based computing will give way to tablets and smart phones-"a land grab evolution of internet access." In addition, the number of servers in clouds is expected to grow by more than 30% a year. What this means, he says, is that "energy will be a key factor in determining how useful devices are." The costs of powering and cooling all these devices, not to mention giant server farms, will increasingly impact their design and performance.

Hennessy offers a brief history of the connections among computer architecture, speed, and energy efficiency since the late 1970s. Today, the Jaguar of the processing world, Intel's Core i7 has a detector that slows down its clock rate if the chip gets too hot, says Hennessy. Researchers eager to maintain steady progress in performance while keeping transistors cool are exploring variations on multithreading and multicore devices, some with simpler memory hierarchies, others with aggressive memory hierarchies. The desired outcome would permit the portability of these processors across architectures "so we don't have to turn every single programmer into a hardware architecture expert," says Hennessy.

About the Speaker(s): In addition to his multiple roles at MIT, Rodney Brooks is Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of iRobot Corporation. He received degrees in pure mathematics from the Flinders University of South Australia and the Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University in 1981. Brooks is a Founding Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

John L. Hennessy joined Stanford's faculty in 1977 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. He rose through the academic ranks to full professorship in 1986 and was the inaugural Willard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 1987 to 2004.

From 1983 to 1993, Hennessy was director of the Computer Systems Laboratory, a research and teaching center operated by the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that fosters research in computer systems design. He served as chair of computer science from 1994 to 1996 and, in 1996, was named dean of the School of Engineering. In 1999, he was named provost, the university's chief academic and financial officer.

In October 2000, he was inaugurated as Stanford University's 10th president. In 2005, he became the inaugural holder of the Bing Presidential Professorship.

A pioneer in computer architecture, in 1981 Dr. Hennessy drew together researchers to focus on a computer architecture known as RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer), a technology that has revolutionized the computer industry by increasing performance while reducing costs. Hennessy also helped transfer this technology to industry.

Hennessy is a recipient of the 2000 IEEE John von Neumann Medal, the 2000 ASEE Benjamin Garver Lamme Award, the 2001 ACM Eckert"Mauchly Award, the 2001 Seymour Cray Computer Engineering Award, a 2004 NEC C&C Prize for lifetime achievement in computer science and engineering and a 2005 Founders Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, and he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Hennessy earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University and his master's and doctoral degrees in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom

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