Illinois-led SONIC Center awarded $30 million for computing on nanoscale fabrics

ECE News

Kim Gudeman, Coordinated Science Lab

Story Highlights

  • A new Systems On Nanoscale Information fabriCs (SONIC) Center has received a $30 million to launch the center.
  • ECE Professor Naresh Shanbhag will lead SONIC.
  • The center will work to create a new computing paradigm to extend scaling of nanoscale devices beyond what is feasible today.

Led by faculty at the University of Illinois, a multi-university research team has received $30 million to launch the Systems On Nanoscale Information fabriCs (SONIC) Center. The center—part of a new $194 million initiative called the Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research network (STARnet)—will focus on substantially enhancing the information processing power and storage capacity of integrated circuits (ICs) and related systems, which is critical in maintaining reliability as devices continue to shrink and improve in energy efficiency.

Society is increasingly dependent on electronic information and has come to expect electronic devices—cell phones, tablets, laptops, cameras and others—to decrease in cost, offer more features and provide longer-lasting battery power. In the past, such advances have been made possible by the frequent reduction in size of a basic building block: the transistor switch.

Today, these switches are so small that their behavior is fraught with uncertainty due to quantum effects. The challenge is to design reliable and energy-efficient computing systems using the unreliable switches that arise as researchers seek to make devices even smaller and more energy-efficient. SONIC’s innovative research agenda seeks to address this issue by treating the problem of computing using unreliable devices and circuits as one of communicating information over unreliable channels.

Naresh R. Shanbhag
Naresh R. Shanbhag

“Essentially, we’re not going to try to build a reliable switch, but instead discover methods to build reliable systems,” said SONIC Director and ECE Professor Naresh R Shanbhag, the Jack S. Kilby Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It turns out that while information resides at the highest level and nanoscale components at the lowest level, they can both be mathematically described with the same statistical framework. No one has successfully captured this similarity between them before.”

The center seeks to create a new computing paradigm—using information processing instead of data processing—to extend scaling of nanoscale devices beyond what is feasible today. Computing devices today are primarily data pipes and data crunchers. By borrowing probabilistic techniques from the field of communications, SONIC researchers plan to transform these systems into statistical information processors that are able to infer intent and handle uncertainty while consuming much less energy than traditional computers.

SONIC is supported by STARnet, which will provide funding over the next five years to six centers at universities. Funded by the Department of Defense and U.S. semiconductor and supplier companies as a public-private partnership, STARnet projects help maintain U.S. leadership in semiconductor technology vital to U.S. prosperity, security and intelligence. The STARnet program is administered by the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), the world's leading university research consortium for semiconductors and related technologies, and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), part of the Department of Defense.

 “STARnet is a collaborative network of stellar university research centers whose goal is to enable the continued pace of growth of the microelectronics industry, unconstrained by the daunting list of fundamental physical limits that threaten,” said Gilroy Vandentop, the new SRC program executive director.

"This is a truly multidisciplinary research effort. Here at Illinois, we have faculty investigators from the Departments of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering, " said ECE Professor Andrew Singer, a theme leader in SONIC. The Coordinated Science Laboratory at Illinois, where four SONIC researchers are faculty members, will support SONIC’s administrative activities.

The SONIC team consists of 23 faculty researchers from universities across the nation, including Carnegie Mellon University; Princeton University; Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Michigan. Other Illinois faculty include Pavan Kumar Hanumolu, Rakesh Kumar, and Eric Pop from ECE; John A. Rogers from  Materials Science and Engineering; and Rob Rutenbar from Computer Science.

In addition to SONIC, University of Illinois researchers are also involved with two other STARnet research centers. ECE Professor Douglas L Jones will contribute to the TerraSwarm Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which aims to address pervasive integration of smart, networked sensors and actuators into our connected world. ECE Professor Wen-mei Hwu and ECE Associate Professor Deming Chen will participate in the Center for Future Architectures Research (C-FAR), led by the University of Michigan. C-FAR will develop future scalable computer systems architectures that leverage emerging circuit fabrics to enable new commercial/defense applications.

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