Integrating Strengths in Computer Engineering
André DeHon's wide-angle perspective on computer architecture has drawn him to different spheres of computing research and earned him a bit of a bleeding-edge reputation. He is also an innovator in higher education. DeHon, associate professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE), was instrumental in developing Penn's undergraduate major in computer engineering, a new discipline that prepares students to explore the space where hardware and software meet.
In the physical area, DeHon is shaping bold approaches to computer design for a world beyond the lithographic silicon chip. Along with smaller chip features and greater capacity, emergent nanotechnology creates imperfections in chip fabrication. DeHon compares the latest chips to snowflakes. Because each one is unique, he says, "We have to adapt how we map the computation to the chip on a per chip basis." On the programming end, DeHon is taking on the challenge of parallel processing, orchestrating different processors to perform multiple operations at the same time in order to lift computers from their current performance plateau.
DeHon has straddled the hardware/software divide in the private sector as well as in university research labs. While consulting for a startup company, working on what is now called "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP), he encountered a troubling hole in the skill sets of his colleagues. DeHon recalls, "There were people educated as electrical engineers who weren't software engineers, but they knew the math. Then you had software engineers— computer scientists who were implementing algorithms, but they didn't understand the math. Everything that resulted was a compromise." And no one wants to recruit or be a compromise team member.
To help future engineers avoid these compromises, Penn Engineering and a relatively small group of schools now offer degrees in computer engineering. DeHon views this as a natural stage in the development of knowledge and pedagogy. "Think back to the time of Newton," he says. "The new thing was the physical scientist." Physical scientists did everything from calculus to optics experiments, perhaps with a little alchemy on the side. When scientific discoveries proliferated, offshoot disciplines such as chemistry and biology had to be created to handle the volume.
"I think we are on a similar cusp of inventing information sciences," says DeHon. He notes that when Eckert and Mauchly built ENIAC at Penn in the 1940s, they were engineers, not computer scientists. Computer science appeared after computing became sophisticated enough to branch out of electrical engineering, and a gap grew between the two areas. Computer engineering, the latest limb on the knowledge tree, is covering that gap.
View the full article in Penn Engineering Magazine: "Integrating Strengths in Computer Engineering" by Stephanie Brown.