Nina Amla with Joydip Kundu and Fernanda Pembleton from the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), provide an in-depth look at computing, communication and information systems
In a world in which computers and networks are increasingly embedded in society, computing, information, and communication play a central role in how humans live, work, learn and communicate. Over the past decades, the Nation’s global leadership in computing, communication, and information systems has been driven by our focus on science and technology research and innovation. The importance of this leadership has never been more critical than in the last two years as the U.S. and the world fought to promptly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most obvious impacts was the shift of numerous services to online formats like telehealth, education and remote work. Investments in advanced communications, networking, and broadband access ensured that millions of Americans could continue to work and access education and medical services. This information infrastructure ecosystem enables innovations that translate into educational opportunity, economic development, and job creation.
The mission of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) is to enable the U.S. to uphold its leadership in computing, communications, and information science and engineering; promote understanding of the principles and uses of advanced computing, communications, and information systems in service to society; support advanced cyberinfrastructure that enables and accelerates discovery and innovation across all science and engineering disciplines; and contribute to universal, transparent, and affordable participation in an information-based society.
To achieve this mission, CISE supports foundational research and education in all areas of computer and information science and engineering, fosters broad interdisciplinary collaboration, helps develop and maintain cutting-edge national cyberinfrastructure for research and education, and contributes to the development of computer and information technology. CISE comprises four units: the Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure (OAC), Division of Computing and Communication Foundations (CCF), Division of Computer and Network Systems (CNS), and Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS). While each unit manages a distinct portfolio of programs, proposal competitions, and grants, multiple programs span these different units as well as other directorates at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
The CISE research portfolio can be broadly viewed through the lens of three high-level technical themes: computing in a post-Moore world, the convergence of artificial intelligence, and the emerging socio-technical frontier. These themes are not narrow pathways, but rather are organisational umbrellas that encompass many science and technology directions. CISE also recognises that advancing science and engineering requires investments in the acquisition, development, and provision of state-of-the-art computer systems, cyberinfrastructure resources, tools, and services, and the development of a diverse workforce that will translate discovery into the implementation of technology and systems that continue to sustain and transform research across all aspects of science and engineering. We will discuss each of these in detail in the rest of the article.
Computing in a post-Moore world
Observations by Gordon Moore about the regular and timely increase in computational capacity and Robert Dennard about the proportional scaling of the size and power of transistors have largely held true over the last few decades. This has enabled the computing industry to nearly double the performance and functionality of digital electronics roughly every two years within a fixed cost and area. However, with the end of Dennard scaling and the slowing of Moore’s Law, the continued scalability of applications has become a major concern. Computing in a post-Moore world will require a comprehensive rethinking of technologies across the entire computing stack to continue to deliver the computing-based innovation that has relied on this scalability. Several CISE activities tackle this challenge.
CISE’s Principles and Practice of Scalable Systems (PPoSS) program aims to build a community of researchers who will work across computing stack layers to improve the scalability of modern applications, systems and toolchains. PPoSS encourages holistic approaches that address performance as well as important issues like correctness, accuracy, security and privacy, domain-specific design, and heterogeneity. In 2021, CISE selected four collaborative projects (to be funded at a total of $12 million over four years) to investigate scalability and other issues of parallel, heterogeneous, and edge systems.
Modern communication devices, systems, and networks are expected to support a broad range of critical and essential services, incorporating computation, coordination, and intelligent decision-making. The resiliency of such systems, which subsumes security, adaptability, and autonomy, will be a key driving factor for future NextG—or Next Generation—network systems. In 2021, CISE launched the Resilient & Intelligent NextG Systems (RINGS) program to accelerate research in areas that will potentially have a significant impact on emerging NextG wireless and mobile communication, networking, sensing, and computing systems, along with global-scale services, with a focus on greatly improving the resiliency and performance of such networked systems.
The convergence of artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is advancing rapidly, enabled and significantly fuelled by foundational advances that span all areas supported in CISE. Increasingly sophisticated and integrated approaches for AI systems appear in applications across all sectors of the economy, and new challenges emerge for advancing, applying, and governing these promising technologies. AI holds the potential to better lives across our Nation through increased economic prosperity, improved educational opportunities and quality of life, and enhanced security. At the same time, the potential capabilities and complexities of AI, combined with the wealth of interactions with human users and the environment, make it critically important to further advance our understanding of AI, including aspects of fairness, ethics, safety, security, and transparency. NSF is America’s largest federal funder of non-Defence AI research, with extensive investments in the broad swath of research areas — algorithms, applications, data, systems, just to name a few — that support AI’s advancements and ensure positive impacts.
In 2019, NSF in collaboration with multiple federal agencies and industrial partners, launched the National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes program to fund a series of AI research centres across the Nation. Each institute is funded at up to $20 million over five years. The AI Institutes support foundational and translational research in AI technology and its application to vital sectors of the economy, as well as education and workforce development for the next generation of AI talent.
The expertise of the researchers engaged in the AI Research Institutes spans a wide range of disciplines, providing an integrated effort to tackle the challenges society faces, drawing upon both foundational and use-inspired research. NSF has long been able to bring together numerous fields of scientific inquiry, including computer and information science and engineering, along with cognitive science and psychology, economics and game theory, engineering and control theory, ethics, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy, and that has positioned the agency to lead the Nation in efforts to expand the frontiers of AI.
For example, the NSF AI Institute for Future Edge Networks and Distributed Intelligence, led by The Ohio State University, leverages the synergies between networking and AI to design future generations of wireless edge networks that are highly efficient, reliable, robust, and secure. New AI tools and techniques are developed to ensure that these networks are self-healing and self-optimised. Collaboration over these adaptive networks will help solve long-standing distributed AI challenges, making AI more efficient, interactive, and privacy-preserving for applications in sectors such as intelligent transportation, remote healthcare, distributed robotics, and smart aerospace. The institute creates a research, education, knowledge transfer and workforce development environment that will help establish U.S. leadership in next-generation edge networks and distributed AI for many decades to come.
The socio-technical frontier
The boundaries between technology and the physical world are rapidly vanishing, creating a new ecosystem in which socio-technical experiences that enhance our interaction with the world we live in are becoming our natural environment. These cyber-physical and cyber-human interactions are increasingly shaping our society and economy, at all levels and in many forms ranging from equitable access to health, connectivity, and information to societal challenges like privacy, security, and fairness.
CISE’s Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) is a research and action competition designed to build a more cohesive research-to-innovation pipeline and foster a collaborative spirit between researchers and the civic communities in which research ideas may offer benefits. CIVIC aims to lay a foundation for a broader and more fluid exchange of research interests and civic priorities that will create new instances of collaboration and introduce new areas of technical and social scientific discovery. CIVIC-funded projects seek to produce a significant community impact within 12 months — in contrast to many community-university partnerships that take years to provide tangible benefits to communities — and have the potential for lasting impact beyond the period of the CIVIC award. In the first stage, CISE awarded planning grants to 52 teams across 30 states, as well as tribal regions, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to refine concepts for projects designed to address use-inspired issues in their communities. In the second stage of the competition, 17 of those teams were selected for awards of up to $1 million to conduct and evaluate ready-to-implement pilot projects in a 12-month timeframe. Teams will also collaborate across the entire program, sharing approaches and positioning projects to have a wider impact.
The Designing Accountable Software Systems (DASS) program supports foundational research aimed towards a deeper understanding and formalisation of the bi-directional relationship between software systems and the complex social and legal contexts within which software systems must be designed and operate. For example, consider privacy policies such as the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA). How does one implement those policies in computer systems with reasonable assurances that they correctly uphold the policy intent? DASS aims to bring researchers in computer and information science and engineering together with researchers in law and social, behavioural, and economic sciences to jointly develop rigorous and reproducible methodologies for understanding the drivers of social goals for software and for designing, implementing, and validating accountable software systems. In 2021, CISE made multiple awards that studied key challenges in designing accountable software in these regulation- aware environments.
CISE supports and coordinates the development, acquisition, and provision of state-of-the-art cyberinfrastructure resources, tools, and services, in addition to forward-looking research and education to expand the future capabilities of cyberinfrastructure specific to science and engineering. By fostering a vibrant ecosystem of technologies and a skilled workforce of developers, researchers, staff, and users, CISE serves the growing community of scientists and engineers, across all disciplines, whose work relies on the power of an advanced research cyberinfrastructure.
For example, CISE conceived and funded Project OVERCOME to enable teams of community organisations, academic researchers, and civic leaders to explore ways to reach underserved and unserved populations. This effort is deploying innovative communication networks and assessing these deployments. Leading these explorations are six communities throughout the U.S.: Cleveland, Ohio; Clinton County, Missouri; Yonkers, New York; Blue River, Oregon; Loiza, Puerto Rico; Buffalo, New York; and Detroit, Michigan. Specifically, the projects in Clinton County and Blue River address rural broadband research.
Recognising the nationwide challenge of providing access to broadband services to millions of underserved and unserved Americans who currently lack access to basic Internet, CISE’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless (PAWR) program demonstrates practical, affordable solutions to rural broadband that eliminate the disparity of access to information in rural and urban parts of the United States. PAWR enables academic and industry researchers to explore approaches at scale — approaches that cannot be studied in lab environments. PAWR will directly contribute to breaking down the digital divide, a key barrier to education and economic progress, allow rapid exploration with various cost-effective technologies, and increase supply-chain diversity, enhancing supply- chain security. There are currently four platforms in Utah, New York, North Carolina and Iowa.
Another example is the Cybersecurity Innovation for Cyberinfrastructure (CICI) program which aims to develop, deploy, and integrate solutions that benefit the broader scientific community by securing science data, workflows, and infrastructure. CICI supports projects that explore novel usable and collaborative security for science, scientific security datasets, and scientific infrastructure vulnerability discovery.
A recent CICI award supports the development of the Open Science Chain (OSC) that allows a broad set of researchers to efficiently share metadata and easily verify the authenticity of their scientific datasets in a secure manner, while preserving provenance and lineage information. OSC enables data sharing, which is an integral component of scientific research and associated publications.
Researchers have the ability to extend and build upon prior research when they can efficiently access, validate and verify the data referenced. Facilitating the future reuse of data in a secure and independently verifiable manner is critical to the advancement of research.
Diversity, education & workforce development
Opportunities in computing and information science and engineering call for strategic approaches to develop the next generation of workforce expertise. The boom in technological innovation and growth in IT-intensive jobs and industries is driving explosive growth in student interest in computing education, and U.S. academic institutions are trying to keep pace. To meet this demand and sustain job growth and U.S. competitiveness, it is critical to set up sustainable pathways for education and training. At the same time, these pathways must promote a diverse workforce so that our Nation is able to tap talent from all sources, and so that all have access to high-quality jobs.
CISE’s CSforALL program aims to provide all U.S. students with the opportunity to participate in computer science (CS) and computational thinking (CT) education in their schools at the preK-12 levels. The program focuses on both research and researcher- practitioner partnerships that foster the research and development needed to bring CS and CT to all schools. Specifically, the aim is to provide high school teachers with the preparation, professional development, and ongoing support they need to teach rigorous computer science courses; preK-8 teachers with the instructional materials and preparation they need to integrate CS and CT into their teaching; and schools and districts with the resources needed to define and evaluate multi-grade pathways.
The Computing Research Association’s Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research (CRA-WP) is one of CISE’s Broadening Participation in Computing Alliances. CRA-WP aims to widen participation and improve access, opportunities, and positive experiences of individuals from groups underrepresented in computing. With nearly 30 years of experience in advancing these goals, CRA-WP received a 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) for their long-running work to address the underrepresentation of women in computer science and engineering. With a focus on community building, career mentoring, information sharing, and effecting systemic change for post-secondary research computing pathways, CRA-WP supports several leadership development opportunities. Examples include the Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU) program, Grad Cohort Workshop for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Leadership Skills (GC-IDEALS), Grad Cohort Workshop for Women (GC-Women), Career Mentoring Workshops (CMW) supporting early- and mid-career researchers, and several annual Scholarship and Award programs.
We also note how these different themes and priorities interact. For example, the investments made in envisioning post-Moore computer systems will — in many cases — help advance our aspirations for AI and other research areas. As another example, investments in cyberinfrastructure can be instrumental to broadening participation in computing research by broadening access to who has the resources needed to translate their innovative ideas into research impact at scale. CISE’s holistic approach to research investments helps advance both the themes individually and in synergy with each other.
Over the last few decades, computing-based innovations have improved our quality of life, strengthened our Nation’s economy and security, and positioned us at the forefront of science and technology, globally. While the future of computing and communication technology looks very exciting, we must also be cognizant of the many fundamental research challenges that must be overcome and societal needs that must be addressed. CISE will continue its leadership role in supporting novel inter- disciplinary research and the next generation of cyberinfrastructure that will sustain and transform this rapidly evolving ecosystem and developing a diverse workforce who will drive future discoveries.