CSL Defining the Future

The Coordinated Science Laboratory started as the Control Systems Laboratory 70 years ago, as the Cold War dawned. It was an era in which science was ascendant. Communications were going global. And the military and national defense were on many minds.

Fall 2021

In 1951, fighter jets engaged over Korea. The U.S. Census Bureau took delivery of the first commercially available computer, Univac I. About 10 percent of American homes had television, and in less than five years about 65 percent would. In that same five-year window, the U.S. Interstate Highway System would break ground, the first academic workshop on artificial intelligence would be held at Dartmouth, and the first transatlantic telephone cable would be laid.

“Over the past 70 years, CSL has undoubtedly shaped the way we live, work, and play,” said Klara Nahrstedt, a Grainger Distinguished Chair of Engineering, member of the Department of Computer Science’s faculty, and director of the Coordinated Science Lab. “While CSL began with deep roots in physics, we look to shape applications at the intersection of communications, circuits, control, and computing in the years to come.”

You could make a credible case that the early years of the Coordinated Science Lab marked the beginning of the technological era that we live in today. The world looks different on this side of history, but the broad strokes of today’s world were being drawn. CSL was among a very small number of organizations drawing them and has been defining the future ever since.

Today, we see CSL’s impact in a variety of crucial fields.

Information Trust Institute

The Information Trust Institute was born in 2004 with the goal of making an increasingly cyber world more resilient, reliable, and secure. Two early successes charted ITI’s course. One was a center funded by Boeing to research trusted software, which is still active. The other was an NSF-funded center on cybersecurity for the electric power grid. That led to two follow-on centers, including the still-active Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium.

The National Security Agency also funded the Science of Security for Systems Lablet, which has focused on developing methodologies for the end-to-end security analysis of systems ranging from the power grid to the Internet. More recently, DARPA sponsored the development of a power grid testbed that has enabled researchers to evaluate certain types of attacks on the grid and develop methods for countering them.

Meanwhile, the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, is currently developing research, education, and technology that is keeping the nation’s critical infrastructure — ranging from 5G to manufacturing systems — more secure.

Altogether, ITI has received more than $190 million in funding over the past 17 years. 

Cognitive Computing

In the early 2010, the Semiconductor Research Corporation and DARPA supported the Systems on Nanoscale Information FabriCs center within CSL. It focused on the design of robust, energy efficient, and intelligent computing platforms using emerging nanoscale devices, which are inspired by the information processing principles found in communication and biological systems.

By 2016, IBM and Illinois teamed up on the Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research. With more than 75 faculty members, IBM researchers, and PhD students, the center studies fundamental cognitive/AI science and technologies important to societal issues, such as improving the quality of learning.

They are building a creative experiential learning advisor for suggesting projects, identifying pertinent concepts, and offering assessment questions. The team’s software frameworks are improving the development of cognitive applications, hardware acceleration of data intensive cognitive workloads based on an open computing platform, called OpenPOWER. Technologies developed at the center dramatically accelerate the creation and deployment of large-scale, high-impact cognitive applications.

Machine Learning for Electronics

The semiconductor industry is always searching for new ways to increase performance while reducing the size of chips and the cost and time required to develop them. So much so, that CSL’s Center for Advanced Electronics through Machine Learning has nearly a dozen industry partners, including Intel, Lockheed Martin, Samsung, and ASUS. CAEML is a National Science Foundation-funded Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, meant to enable industrially relevant, pre-competitive research via sustained partnerships among universities, industry, and government. It speeds up the design and verification of microelectronic circuits and systems by leveraging machine-learning techniques to develop new models for EDA tools, which semiconductor companies use to create and verify chip designs for mass production.

“When products fail qualification testing, it is usually attributed to shortcomings in the models employed by the electronic design automation tools,” said Elyse Rosenbaum, CAEML’s director and the Hassebrock Professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “Many products have to go through at least one re-spin before entering the marketplace, resulting in the loss of money and time.”

Networked Intelligent Components and Environments

IoT is important on the battlefield, and it’s also critical to the success of factories of the future. Foxconn Interconnect Technology and Grainger Engineering embraced that future in 2019 with the launch of the $100 million Center for Networked Intelligent Components and Environments. Based at CSL, the center serves as a global hub for the smart, reconfigurable technology that will drive the manufacturing plants, medical environments, autonomous vehicles, and smart homes. Dozens of researchers work on computing, communication, and sensing infrastructure that constitutes the backbone of the Internet of Things-enabled systems and environments. Other projects include precision components, such as electronic and optoelectronic connectors (like a network cable or HDMI cable), antennas (like those used in a cell phone), sensors (like those that cars use to park themselves), and parts used in digital cameras. 

In Peace and War

The Control Systems Laboratory got its start in 1951 with a large grant from the Joint Services Electronics Program (JSEP), a collaboration among the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The University of Illinois joined MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford as the only academic institutions awarded JSEP funding.

JSEP’s mission was to “search for scientific advances and know-how that can lead to improved modern equipment and technologies in peace and war,” said a 1986 history of the program. It recognized that “World War II was a turning point, since it both established the importance of technology in support of warfare and produced the concept of government investment in science and technology in support of defense. It is that very technology base that has preserved our leadership in military capability in the post-war era. Since much of the domestic technology that allows us to enjoy our particular lifestyle in this country has resulted from defense-related research, the benefits have certainly exceeded the expectation of the military.”

Renamed in 1959 as the Coordinated Science Laboratory, CSL began taking on its first unclassified projects as well. “A serious effort was undertaken to incorporate graduate research and graduate students into the programs…and virtually all the senior staff assumed a teaching role in the College of Engineering,” Professor Timothy Trick, a former CSL director, said. JSEP funding continued for decades, alongside a much broader research portfolio.

“You had this wonderful moment of recognition – that some swords could indeed be beaten into plowshares. But the 1959 reorganization also marked the moment that CSL became an integral part of the college and its educational mission. We’ve mentored and taught thousands of graduate students in that time. They’ve driven technology in so many diverse, powerful directions that knit together fields of knowledge – in fact they’re powerful precisely because they span those fields. That open, interdisciplinary attitude thrives to this day,” said current Director Klara Nahrstedt.

In the decades that followed, CSL explored and defined a series of important technologies that would impact the military and everyday life, including:

The first airborne radar capable of locking onto and tracking a target.

Side-looking, airborne radar.

PLATO, the first computer-assisted instructional program that introduced or foreshadowed the first online chat rooms, multiplayer gaming, touchscreens, instant messaging, and social media.

Automatic test generators for sequential circuits used to put the first electronic telephone switching systems through their paces. 

The MESI standard – known as the “Illinois Protocol” given its origins – which is still used to ensure data consistency in shared-memory multi-processor chips.

The concept of cost-to-come, which was widely used to control nonlinear systems with uncertainty-corrupted measurements and adaptive systems.

Motion analysis techniques that are incorporated into everything from the MPEG standard to Google Street View.

Computer vision and image processing advancements that have been used by the likes of GE, Lockheed, and Honeywell.