Q&A: Hai (Helen) Li (Academic, Embedded System Researcher)

Helen Li came to the U.S. from China in 2000 to study for a PhD at Purdue University. Following graduation she worked for Intel, Qualcomm, and Seagate. After about five years of working in industry, she transitioned to academia by taking a position at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where she teaches courses such as circuit design (“Introduction to VLSI”), advanced computer architecture (“VLSI System and Architecture Design”), and system-level applications (“Real-Time Embedded System Design”).

Hai (Helen) Li

In a recent interview Li described her background and provided details about her research relating to spin-transfer torque RAM-based memory hierarchy and memristor-based computing architecture.

An abridged version of the interview follows.

NAN: What were some of your most notable experiences working for Intel, Qualcomm, and Seagate?

HELEN: The industrial working experience is very valuable to my whole career life. At Seagate, I led a design team on a test chip for emerging memory technologies. Communication and understanding between device engineers and design communities is extremely important. The joined effects from all the related disciplines (not just one particular area anymore) became necessary. The concept of cross layers (including device/circuit/architecture/system) cooptimization, and design continues in my research career.

NAN: In 2009, you transitioned from an engineering career to a career teaching electrical and computer engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU). What prompted this change?

HELEN: After five years of working at various industrial companies on wireless communication, computer systems, and storage, I realized I am more interested in independent research and teaching. After careful consideration, I decided to return to an academic career and later joined the NYU faculty.

NAN: How long have you been teaching at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU? What courses do you currently teach and what do you enjoy most about teaching?

HELEN: I have been teaching at NYU-Poly since September 2009. My classes cover a wide range of computer engineering, from basic circuit design (“Introduction to VLSI”), to advanced computer architecture (“VLSI System and Architecture Design”), to system-level applications (“Real-Time Embedded System Design”).

Though I have been teaching at NYU-Poly, I will be taking a one-year leave of absence from fall 2012 to summer 2013. During this time, I will continue my research on very large-scale integration (VLSI) and computer engineering at University of Pittsburgh.

I enjoy the interaction and discussions with students. They are very smart and creative. Those discussions always inspire new ideas. I learn so much from students.

Helen and her students are working on developing a 16-Kb STT-RAM test chip.

NAN: You’ve received several grants from institutions including the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Research Lab to fund your embedded systems endeavors. Tell us a little about some of these research projects.

HELEN: The objective of the research for “CAREER: STT-RAM-based Memory Hierarchy and Management in Embedded Systems” is to develop an innovative spin-transfer torque random access memory (STT-RAM)-based memory hierarchy to meet the demands of modern embedded systems for low-power, fast-speed, and high-density on-chip data storage.

This research provides a comprehensive design package for efficiently integrating STT-RAM into modern embedded system designs and offers unparalleled performance and power advantages. System architects and circuit designers can be well bridged and educated by the research innovations. The developed techniques can be directly transferred to industry applications under close collaborations with several industry partners, and directly impact future embedded systems. The activities in the collaboration also include tutorials at the major conferences on the technical aspects of the projects and new course development.

The main goal of the research for “CSR: Small Collaborative Research: Cross-Layer Design Techniques for Robustness of the Next-Generation Nonvolatile Memories” is to develop design technologies that can alleviate the general robustness issues of next-generation nonvolatile memories (NVMs) while maintaining and even improving generic memory specifications (e.g., density, power, and performance). Comprehensive solutions are integrated from architecture, circuit, and device layers for the improvement on the density, cost, and reliability of emerging nonvolatile memories.

The broader impact of the research lies in revealing the importance of applying cross-layer design techniques to resolve the robustness issues of the next-generation NVMs and the attentions to the robust design context.

The research for “Memristor-Based Computing Architecture: Design Methodologies and Circuit Techniques” was inspired by memristors, which have recently attracted increased attention since the first real device was discovered by Hewlett-Packard Laboratories (HP Labs) in 2008. Their distinctive memristive characteristic creates great potentials in future computing system design. Our objective is to investigate process-variation aware memristor modeling, design methodology for memristor-based computing architecture, and exploitation of circuit techniques to improve reliability and density.

The scope of this effort is to build an integrated design environment for memristor-based computing architecture, which will provide memristor modeling and design flow to circuit and architecture designers. We will also develop and implement circuit techniques to achieve a more reliable and efficient system.

An electric car model controlled by programmable emerging memories is in the developmental stages.

NAN: What types of projects are you and your students currently working on?

HELEN: Our major efforts are on device modeling, circuit design techniques, and novel architectures for computer systems and embedded systems. We primarily focus on the potentials of emerging devices and leveraging their advantages. Two of our latest projects are a 16-Kb STT-RAM test chip and an electric car model controlled by programmable emerging memories.

The complete interview appears in Circuit Cellar 267 (October 2012).

Electronics Engineering Crossword (Issue 267)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s October electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.     QUADRATURESIGNAL—Can be produced using two sensors spaced at odd half-slot multiples around a single track [two words]

4.     MICROELECTROMECHANICAL—This type of system’s size ranges from 20 µm to 1 mm

8.     MANCHESTERCODE—A low-to-high transition means “0” and a high-to-low transition means “1” [two words]

9.     ABSOLUTEDECODER—Because these devices have only one track per bit of resolution, they can require large diameters, which gives them a nonvolatile and unique output for each position [two words]

15.   BATTERY—Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) is credited with inventing the first one of these in the 1800s

16.   DIGITALFILTER—A piece of software, firmware, or logic circuit that takes a digital data flow as an input and provides a filtered version of this signal on its output [two words]

17.   CONCURRENCY—Topic of columnist Bob Japenga’s ongoing article series, which began in Circuit Cellar 263, 2012

18.   EXBIBYTE—1,152,921,504,606,846,976 bytes

19.   RELATIVEHUMIDITY—Amount of water vapor in the atmosphere expressed as a percentage of the total amount the air can hold at the current temperature [two words]

Down

2.     ACCELEROMETER—The design in Mark Pedley’s article, “eCompass: Build and Calibrate a Tilt-Compensating Electronic Compass” (Circuit Cellar 265, 2012), was built using one of these

3.     SANDER—New Zealand-based Circuit Cellar contributor and recent interviewee who is fascinated with advanced robot technologies

5.     PHASELOCKEDLOOP—This control system generateS an output frequency, which can be either higher or lower than the input, based on a reference input clock [three words]

6.     NEUROMORPHICCircuit Cellar’s October’s interviewee, Helen Li, believes this type of computing will solve the contradiction between the limited functions of computing systems and the ever-increasing variety of applications

7.     ELECTROSTATIC—This type of cell consists of a thin plastic film sandwiched between two metal stators

10.   BOOSTCONVERTER—Its output voltage is greater than its input voltage [two words]

11.   ARMSTRONG—American engineer (1890—1954) who invented the regenerative circuit, the super-regenerative circuit, the superheterodyne receiver, and modern frequency modulation (FM) radio transmission

12.   INCLINOMETER—Used to measure tilt

13.   SHALLENBERGER—American engineer (1860–1898) who invented an induction meter to measure alternating current

14.   MEMRISTOR—The functional equivalent of a synapse

 

Team-Based Engineering

On August 6, 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed in Gale Crater on Mars after traveling a daunting 352 million miles. It was a triumphant moment for the scores of Curiosity team members who had spent years engineering the mission. And it has become the archetypal example of the benefit of team-based, multidisciplinary engineering.

This is an image of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) located on Curiosity’s arm. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

In Circuit Cellar 267 (October  2012), Steve Ciarcia refers to the Curiosity effort as a point of departure for expounding the importance teamwork and intelligent project management.  He argues that engineering endeavors of all sorts and sizes require the extraordinary focus and collaboration of multiple specialists all working toward a common goal.

Several weeks ago, I was following the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, which got me reminiscing about the importance of teamwork on large engineering projects. Obviously, a large project requires a significant number of people due to the sheer amount of work. But, more importantly, a project’s various tasks require a balanced mix of skills for successful and timely completion.

Naturally, you want engineers working in areas where they have the skills and confidence to succeed. That’s when they’ll do their best work. At a basic level, all engineers share a distinctive trait: the ability to make something you want from technology and materials. This is the best definition of “engineer” I have heard. But, as I said last month, different engineers have different interests, skills, and experience. Some engineers are good at understanding the subtleties of how a large systems’ components interact, while others are good at low-level details (e.g., analog circuit design, mechanical design, or software programming). Diversity of skills among team members is important and can greatly strengthen a team.

At some point, we all look to ascend the corporate ladder and, for most companies, that involves engineers taking on management responsibilities. Actively encouraging engineers to work in areas outside their comfort zones encourages greater diversity in problem-solving approaches. Further, inspiring engineers to seek responsibility and expand their comfort zones can make them better engineers for the long term. While this is mainly true about engineers who are employees, it also applies to any contractor or consultant involved in a long-term company relationship.

Some engineers can jump into just about any area and do well. However, it is rarely in the interest of the project or good team dynamics to follow that impulse. Those engineers need to enable the specialists to do the work they’re best at and only jump into situations where they can do the most good. In other words, when team management is your primary task, engineer or not, you need to take on a mentoring role, often teaching rather than doing.

Communication among team members is also key. There must be enough of it, but not too much. I have seen teams schedule so many meetings there isn’t any time left for individuals to make progress on their assigned tasks. Meetings need to be short, to the point, and involve only those people who have a vested interest in the information being exchanged. This can range from two engineers conversing in a hallway to a large project-wide meeting that keeps everyone in sync on a project’s overall goals and status. But beware, it can be difficult to keep big meetings from getting diverted into the minutiae of a particular problem. This needs to be avoided at all costs.

Even when the schedule is tight, overstaffing usually has a negative benefit. The math suggests that project completion time should go down by the inverse of the number of team members. However, this ignores the overhead of more communication among team members, which goes up by the square of the number of participants. If there are too many team members, they may start getting in each other’s way and have less sense of ownership in what they’re doing. Basically, there are some tasks that take a fixed amount of time. As the saying goes, nine women can’t make a baby in one month!

Motivating the team is another key factor that should be a priority shared by the team and technical management. No matter how large or small a team member’s assigned tasks, if he feels he has the responsibility and the recognition for getting that task done, he’ll be more engaged and motivated to do well. Moving team members from task to task destroys any sense of ownership. Granted, every project has the occasional fire that needs to be extinguished—all hands on deck—but, if a project is constantly in that state, then it’s pretty much doomed to fail.

Regardless of whether you are engineering a Mars rover at NASA or creating the next great social media “widget” at a venture-capital funded start-up, the dynamics of successful project management have an established methodology. Design engineers are creative and it is important to give them the flexibility to unleash their creativity—but keep it within bounds. Most projects are time and cost sensitive. Ratifying your step up the corporate ladder only comes by ensuring the project is completed within budget and in a timely fashion.

Circuit Cellar 267 (October 2012) is now available.

CC267: Continuity of Embedded Tech Content

The October issue features articles on topics ranging from FAT cache to IIR digital filters to a quadcopter that uses a mechanical gyro. Let’s review.

Jeff’s quadcopter uses a mechanical gyro that is “an inexpensive yet elegant attempt to counteract wind gusts.” With its protective shield removed, you can see the motorized spinning rotor that sustains equilibrium as its frame moves.

On page 16, Stuart Oliver details how to use math routines that include the dsPIC hardware features, such as the accumulators and barrel shifter. He uses the math for implementing Assembler routines.

Turn to page 30 to learn how Kerry Imming uses FAT cache for SD card access. You can implement his cache technique in a variety of other applications.

Before you start a new project, familiarize yourself George Novacek’s tips on managing project risk (p. 34). He explains how to define, evaluate, and handle risk. Better yet, why not just reduce risk by avoiding as many problems as possible?

Bob Japenga addresses this issue as well (p. 38). In the third part of his series on concurrency in embedded systems, he details how to avoid concurrency-related problems, which can be difficult because the more concurrency you add to a project, the more complicated it becomes.

Ed Nisley presented a MOSFET tester in his August 2012 article, “MOSFET Channel Resistance.” In this issue, Ed covers temperature measurement, the control circuitry, the firmware’s proportional integral control loop, and more (p. 42).

A fan under the black CPU heatsink keeps it near ambient temperature, so that the Peltier module under the aluminum block can control the MOSFET temperature. The gray epoxy block holds a linearized thermistor circuit connected to the Arduino microcontroller under the PCB. (Source: E. Nisley)

Check out Robert Lacoste’s article on page 58 for an introduction to IIR digital filters. You’ll learn about the differences between IIR filters, FIR filters, and analog filters.

WinFilter allows you to calculate and simulate all kind of IIR filters just by entering their key characteristics (left). The plots shows you the resulting frequency and time behavior. (Source: R. Lacoste)

Working with an unstable mechanical gyro? As Jeff Bachiochi explains, a MEMS system is the solution (p. 68).

Lastly, check out the interview with Helen Li on page 54. You’ll find her impressive research exciting and inspirational.