Diversifying the Edge Computing Ecosystem

August 17, 2021

New Duke-led, NSF-funded “Athena” center for AI seeks to advance next-generation mobile networks and make fast, secure edge computing accessible to more users

Yiran Chen, Athena PI

Yiran Chen, Athena PI

A new five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation grant establishing the Duke-led AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging Next-generation Networks will support the development of advanced mobile networks and a broad matrix of local datacenters to improve the speed, security and accessibility of data processing on a national scale.

Known as “Athena” for short, the new institute includes 16 Duke faculty members and 12 researchers from partner institutions MIT, Yale, Princeton, Wisconsin, University of Michigan and North Carolina A&T State University, as well as industry collaborators from AT&T, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, EdgeMicro and 5NINES.

“This significant investment from NSF is a testament to Duke’s broad strengths in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and emblematic of the future of team-based scientific discovery and technology research,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “The award highlights the role of advanced computing solutions for enhancing multiple areas of science and underscores the importance of AI as a pillar of the Duke Science and Technology initiative.”

With partial funding from the Department of Homeland Security, Athena is led by Duke Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science Yiran Chen, an expert in deep learning and system security. One of Athena’s goals, said Chen, is to “diversify the edge computing ecosystem,” to enable fast, secure and accessible computing by moving data processing closer to the point of data collection.

Countless sensor-based devices around us—wearables, smartphones, home security systems, augmented and virtual reality devices, and partially automated vehicles, to name just a few examples—constantly scan the environment to collect and report data about their surroundings. As our internet connectedness grows, so does this proliferation of data.

“This significant investment from NSF is a testament to Duke’s broad strengths in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and emblematic of the future of team-based scientific discovery and technology research.”

Sally Kornbluth | Duke university Provost

The goal of edge computing is to shift some of the data processing workload away from large, distant server farms (“the cloud”) and closer to the data’s origin (the “edge”), making computation and reporting faster and more power-efficient. While the gains may be measured in milliseconds, even this small difference is critical in developing applications that, for example, tell a self-driving vehicle when to hit the brakes.

Athena managing director Jeffrey Krolik, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, emphasized that edge computing offers more than speed. “Keeping data close—as close as the palm of your hand—is more secure because you’re not sharing that information with a huge datacenter. It also delivers more personalized results,” he noted. Consider a wearable sleep monitor: that device might collect biometric data alongside lifestyle data (like how much caffeine you normally consume) and combine it with environmental data (like the temperature of your house). While it might be worthwhile in this case to amalgamate a small number of users’ data streams to look for commonalities—is nearby construction disrupting the sleep of an entire neighborhood?—there’s probably not much utility in combining the data of a North Carolinian with that of Texan, at a server farm a thousand miles away.

Making edge computing accessible to more users will require the transformation of the wireless network business model, said Chen. “Right now, a small handful of large carriers provide the wireless networks,” he explained. “They sell the devices and they offer the cloud computing services. In the future Athena envisions, large datacenters will be augmented by thousands of small, local datacenters that are much closer to the edge.” These edge datacenters would still be provided by the third-party companies, Chen explained, but smaller vendors could rent them, scaling the cost barrier that currently impedes variety in the space. Chen expects that as new product offerings grow, so will the customer base. This change, said Chen, “will diversify the ecosystem of edge.”

Through a collaboration with the Town of Cary, NC, and small edge equipment vendors and service providers, Athena will demonstrate how the developed edge computing system could work in a local community.

Chen and his team plan to work with industry partners to educate and develop technical leaders who are not only skilled at developing edge computing networks, but who are also committed to the fair and ethical use of AI. Additionally, Athena will offer a Summer Research Program (ASRP) to undergraduate and graduate students and introduce the Athena Postdoctoral Fellowship Program (APFP) to encourage engagement with local schools at the K-12 level.

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