Purpose Driven Research
The best innovations occur when talented people from disparate fields focus their complementary skills on difficult problems that matter. For this reason, we will assemble around big ideas and broad themes and, in so doing, encourage creativity, risk taking, and collaboration.
At full build, we anticipate the Innovation Campus will support five to six broad research areas of excellence. We must be agile and flexible in allowing the research areas to morph over time in response to a myriad of internal and external factors, including faculty interest, technology trends, research trends, and support from federal agencies. It is convenient to organize the research themes into two broad categories, with the understanding and expectation that these are not silos and there will be active and ongoing collaborations between them:
- Advancing the “art of the possible”
- Improving the “human experience”
Advancing the art of the possible
Innovation Campus faculty will engage in technologies that enable revolutionary change. Several examples of “art of the possible” research themes are given below.
Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning (AI/ML). Technical Advancement. AI/ML today are fundamentally changing nearly every business in the economy. While effective algorithms exist, they are limited by the need for huge training sets, reliability uncertainties, limited range of applicability, and concerns about bias and fairness that hinder widespread acceptance. The Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics will focus its cross-institutional efforts on not just algorithmic advancements, but also developing adaptable and user-friendly platforms for reliable AI/ML implementations.
Next G Wireless. The telecom industry is on the cusp of widely deploying 5G technology, which offers orders of magnitude improvement in data rates and reduced latency than its predecessor creating unprecedented opportunities for applications such as the internet of things (IoT), cloud services, autonomy, etc. As 5G rolls out, 6G is already under development, offering important opportunities for the Innovation Campus in close collaboration with vested parties at Virginia Tech (e.g., VT-ARC, NSI, CCI and Wireless@VT) and in the tech industries, to continue Virginia Tech’s national and international leadership in research and development of wireless technologies.
Quantum Information Science and Technology (QIST). Quantum computing, communication, and sensing have inherent advantages in certain applications over classical computing based on von Neumann bits, gates and logic. However, unlocking that potential requires further advances in quantum materials, devices, system design, error correction and logic. With financial support from Northrop Grumman, and in close partnership with the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering (VTQ), the Innovation Campus will establish a premier research group focused on the analytical and algorithmic subareas of QIST.
Cybersecurity. Securing data, networks and the associated computing infrastructure is critical to the general public, private industry and the federal government. With assets like the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) and the Hume Center, the Innovation Campus is poised to position Virginia Tech as the leading academic institution in cybersecurity, and for advising the private sector and federal government on how to stay ahead of its adversaries.
Cloud and Edge Computing. The growth of cloud services over the past decade cannot be sustained without a comprehensive redesign of systems to accommodate millions of simultaneous inquiries without fault. Furthermore, as data is increasingly consolidated into smaller numbers of larger data centers, the escalating cybersecurity risk presents a second growing challenge. This research addresses the “back-end” challenges for cloud service providers.
Improving the human experience
Computers, and the software they execute, have modified nearly every aspect of the human experience for individuals, communities, economies, and society. As remarkable as computers are with certain tasks (e.g., rapid calculations), they are considerably less able to replicate a human brain’s performance at higher-level tasks (e.g., pattern recognition, complex decisions). Hence understanding the human-computer interaction remains an important challenge. Furthermore, understanding the intended and unintended consequences of technology requires the integration of “social computing” – the impact of technology on society. Projects in this category are not only about the technology, but how it impacts society. Several examples of human experience projects are given below.
Human-Machine Frontier. This aspect of AI/ML is focused on the expansion of its deployment into new application areas, and in its ethical and fair use. Here we probe the questions of the boundary between “machine decisions” and “human decisions” in connected robotics, drones and vehicles, including the legal and policy aspects that accompany these technical issues. While some fear that human workers will be automated out of the workforce, the growing consensus is that AI and humans can leverage their complementary strengths and effectively augment each other. Looking forward, people and organizations that understand how AI fits within workflows, and how people can work collaboratively with algorithms, will be more competitive than those that are unable to do so.
Immersive Technology. Immersive technology refers to technology that either creates a three-dimensional experience (virtual reality), enhances our experience in the natural world (augmented reality) or combinations that allow the user to view it in natural ways. This technology can be used to improve training on sophisticated systems (e.g., pilots) to helping experienced professionals analyze their environment (e.g., threat assessment for a soldier in the field). Advancing immersive technologies involves integrating technical with neurological/psychological understanding of the brain and how it interprets visual, auditory and other stimuli. The goal is not only to improve the realism of these systems, but to explore new applications for them.
Technology and Policy. The regulatory landscape for technology is growing increasingly complex, with inevitable collisions between the needs of citizens, corporations and the military, as they compete for limited resources. For example, wireless RF spectrum is a finite resource that is shared among multiple stakeholders. And the explosive growth of AI/ML is coming under increasing scrutiny. Policy impacts technology. Furthermore, we must consider the societal impact and ethical considerations of technology. We envision a cross-cutting research theme that addresses challenging problems at the intersection of technology and policy.
Human-Centered Technology Design. Engineering design usually refers to developing a system that performs a task to technical specifications (e.g., speed, spatial resolution, etc.). However, designing products, systems, services, and applications intended for human use requires deep consideration of human needs and experience as well. These considerations are designed by a process that is qualitatively similar to the technical design, but with different objectives. This research focuses on how best to integrate technical and human-centered design.
Entrepreneurship. In collaboration with entrepreneurs in residence, faculty, their project teams, doctoral students, and postdoctoral scholars, the Innovation Campus will provide the opportunity and resources to design and build prototypes and plans for launching new startup businesses. The Innovation Building, across the plaza from the academic building, will contain an accelerator, along with associated services, to assist new businesses at the early stages.
Managing the Research Portfolio
We anticipate that the portfolio of research themes will evolve over time in response to shifts in the market and in industry. Thus, research themes must be fluid relative to departments on an academic campus. Given their dynamic nature, it is important that we establish criteria for the selection, evolution, and ultimate sunsetting of themes. This section brings together the thinking from industry and academia to arrive at a process for managing the portfolio of research themes.
Below is a list of criteria for a successful research theme
- Corporate sponsorship at the "anchor" or "foundation" level (see Corporate Engagement below)
- Strong federal funding in the area
- Corporate hiring in the area is robust
- Faculty depth and interest (ability to attract senior leaders)
- Faculty strength at Virginia Tech (Innovation Campus and Blacksburg)
- Student interest
- High potential for impact on "deep tech", with an emphasis on regional companies and government agencies driven by tech
- Synergy with other research themes
Each research theme will be evaluated annually by a steering committee consisting of faculty leadership and representatives from industry and government, and that is chaired by the Vice President and Executive Director. There will be a thorough review of all research activity, student activity, and impact of work for each research theme. This committee will then make recommendations on each theme, as well as identify possible new research themes to pursue.
Virginia Tech is building a 300,000 gross square foot academic building for the Innovation Campus in North Potomac Yard, a short distance from a new Metro station opening in fall 2022. Opening in 2024, Academic Building One will feature cutting-edge research laboratories and collaboration zones for the design, development, and testing of future information systems, and state-of-the-art classrooms outfitted for residential, remote, and hybrid instruction on the campus, and in collaboration with the other Virginia Tech campuses.