For the past 10 years, the Boston University Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE) has served as an interdisciplinary research and education center advancing leading-edge concepts and practical applications involving the modeling, design, analysis, and management of complex systems. During that period, CISE has seen its faculty—drawn from the College of Engineering, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the School of Management—grow from five to 35 and its annual external research funding rise to $5 million, resulting in major advances in robotics, automation and control; communications and networking; computational biology and medicine; information sciences; and production, service and energy systems.
To celebrate faculty and student achievements over the past decade and explore upcoming challenges and opportunities in the field, CISE organized a daylong symposium, “Systems Science: Shaping Society’s Future,” on May 10.
Held in the Photonics Center Colloquium Room, the symposium featured presentations and a panel discussion by information and systems engineering leaders from across the country, and a poster session showcasing CISE graduate student research. Attendees discussed recent advances in systems science that support improved decision-making and could lead to more highly organized, controlled and optimized “smarter” systems for transportation and civil infrastructure in urban areas, energy and power systems and healthcare systems.
“In the next 30 or 40 years, there will be another three billion people on the planet,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen, “and the great majority will drive two major challenges to the economy and create two major economic opportunities for innovation: (1) they will cluster around urban centers, and (2) they will create a huge explosion in healthcare needs for society, and meeting both of these challenges will require information and systems engineering innovations. This symposium is a perfect reflection of how CISE will bridge the basic sciences to applications so that society benefits.”
Smart Cities: Transportation and Urban Infrastructure
To illustrate how systems science is shaping the future of transportation and city life, Pravin Varaiya, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, described a wireless sensor platform for vehicle detection cities could use to reduce traffic congestion and accidents; Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) discussed a video surveillance method that he developed that uses statistical analysis of pixel-level features to efficiently monitor suspicious objects in cluttered urban environments; and Systems Engineering Division Head/Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE) described a “smart parking” wireless sensor network system that he and Yanfeng Geng (SE, PhD’13) designed to enable drivers to electronically reserve parking spots.
“From the point of view of a city, parking space utilization increases, the city can make more money and congestion will go down,” said Cassandras. “In a nutshell, the idea is to change the mindset from letting the driver make decisions to providing a system that makes good optimal decisions for you.”
To show how systems science is leading to better healthcare systems, Dimitris Bertsimas, Boeing Professor of Operations Research and co-director of the Operations Research Center at MIT, outlined his efforts to develop a data-driven approach for designing chemotherapy clinical trials that could extend patients’ lives; Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE) described how systems biology has altered our understanding of how antibiotics work and provided a viable means of boosting their effectiveness; and Associate Professor Edward Damiano (BME) showcased a software-controlled, artificial pancreas he has advanced to automatically and continuously regulate blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.
“At the current state of the art, we’re basically maintaining people’s blood sugar in an open-loop mode,” said Damiano. “The notion of automating that process with closed-loop systems is very much a part of modern efforts to push forward the standard of care in diabetes.”
Energy and Power Systems
Demonstrating how systems science is shaping the next generation of energy and power systems, Yoni Ben-Meshulam, a data scientist at Opower, explored how his company is transforming energy usage data from more than 50 million homes into actionable information enabling more efficient energy consumption; Eugene Litvinov, senior director of Business Architecture and Technology at the ISO New England, highlighted his vision of a more flexible, reliable and resilient electric power grid; and Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE) set forth an economically viable, algorithm-driven scheme by which the smart grid could exploit synergies between renewable yet highly intermittent sources of electricity such as wind and solar, and electronic devices from smart appliances to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
“It’s a good idea to think of the smart grid as something that’s holistic, covering everything from centralized generation to transmission to distribution, going all the way to our meters and appliances,” said Caramanis. “Automation and measurement will play a very big role in the evolution of the smart grid, and this provides fertile ground for control and systems science to make a difference.”
Emerging Challenges and Opportunities
The symposium concluded with a panel discussion on emerging challenges and opportunities in the field with academic and industry leaders in systems science. Panelists included P.R. Kumar, professor and department chair in computer engineering at Texas A&M University, who served as moderator; Tamer Başar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Y.C. Ho, professor emeritus of systems engineering and applied mathematics at Harvard University; Jeffrey Katz, chief technology officer for the Energy and Utilities industry at IBM; and Robert Tenney, vice president of Programs at BAE Systems’ Advanced Information Technology Division.
To frame the discussion, Başar identified population growth and the decline of natural resources as key challenges facing society, and systems science as the go-to toolkit to use those resources more efficiently.
To apply that toolkit successfully, Tenney advised, “Think about the system you’re building, the infrastructure that supports it and the people who are setting its goals and objectives as one integrated package.”