Systems Track Overview Video

The following is a transcript of the video clip "Systems Track Overview":

Alex Boughton (Junior): Hi, I'm Alex Boughton, I'm a junior in the computer systems class. This is Dirk Grunwald. Would you mind talking a little bit about what makes the systems track different from all the other tracks, and also specifically the foundation and core classes?

Dirk Grunwald (Professor): So the systems track focuses a lot upon sort of the interactions of software and physical systems. And there's a couple of examples that I give for that, in fact actually there's one from 10 years ago when I was visiting a company in the Bay area, which was the designer of the Furby [...] So the Furby is actually an interesting example of cyber-physical systems, it has computing elements that are then supposed to respond to people's speech actions like, other things along those lines, and then affect the like mechanical control. The person who build that has to have a pretty good understanding of what a controlling computer does, because dealing with the physical universe, and in that particular case also had some element of speech recognition algorithms, a lot of other things along these lines, and all that was then in a $30 toy where every penny counts. So in other words they had to have efficiency as well. So the set of skills that you need are, understanding what a computational device is and how it interacts with the world as a whole. So traditionally that has been through, in traditional computer science, computer-oriented companies, that has been through things like operating systems or specific device control, and it's increasingly becoming, across a broader area of what are called cyber-physical systems, so for example, vehicles. Toyota's recent large recalls of Prius has to do with software that is part of the vehicle, because it's not, so they now are right up there with Microsoft.

Boughton: So there's also a lot of similarities between this track and the electrical and computer engineering degree. Would you like to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of choosing computer science?

Grunwald: Yeah, so the way I thought about this when we were designing this is, this is effectively "everything but the electrons". And computer engineering is very much "and the electrons, too". So for example in computer engineering, in addition to digital logic, you'd be taking circuits and systems classes, and a variety of different things that are more at the physical [...] and as a computer systems person you have these be abstractions that you can understand how they function, but you don't necessarily need to be able to solve Kirchoff's circuit laws to be able to do things. And what that does is it leaves you, for example, much more information or time to be able to then sort of "work up the stack" a little. So for example, network systems as an element of computer systems is fundamental these days. If you don't really know anything about networking and how it works and so on and so forth, anything from cell phones to, you know I guess the next Furby would be connected to the Internet, you know, vehicles, all sorts of things, have networks and networking in them, then you're at a disadvantage because you don't have that. The classical computer engineer doesn't have any time or ability to be able to do that. The other element is there's a paper by Maurice Wilkes [...] 1990 called "It's all software now", and in that he's actually going through [...] hardware is designed as software, so people write programs to develop what is now hardware. So in electronics it's languages like Verilog and VHDL, these are different languages than what we use in computer science, much more [...], but it is still software. The average computer engineer does not believe that their future involves writing a lot of code. A computer systems person better be able to understand that, because they have more experience [...].

Boughton: So what would be some of the current research interests of someone who chooses this track?

Grunwald: So in our lab, we actually do a lot of things related to developing new wireless networks, things like this where we actually use tools from computer systems to be able to develop [...] A big emerging area is this area of cyber-physical systems, in particular there's things called SCADA, so Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, which are smart grids, water control things along these lines. These are systems that are, there's a computational component, there's a physical component, and the two are operating in synchrony in to network environment as well. These systems need to be able to be proved as being correct, as opposed to, "well, I hope it works", because they are controlling things like dams and power systems and things along these lines. The area of SCADA, sort of that you might go to, probably as part of the BS/MS program, because we don't have near the range of classes on formal automata, formal automata theory, formal methods and verification, things like that. That is definitely the area, areas in which the research is.

Boughton: And kind of along the same lines, what would you say the [...] for someone in this track?

Grunwald: Pretty much anything in the Bay area. I mean if you look at for example Apple's iPhone, iPad kind of thing, the set of people who, you're not going to be a Visual Basic programmer and have developed this kind of stuff. Apple bought a circuit design and processor design company because they're [...] in-house that does all of these things themselves. Anything that has a physical device, a lot of the pieces for example. You know, an app developer, a person developing a specific application, they probably have relatively general software engineering skills; the person who's putting that system together, the components that then enable that new technology, they're going to have a set of skills that, sort of closer between computer engineering and computer systems, I would argue probably more computer systems than computer engineering.

Boughton: Alright, thank you.

Transcript provided by Erik Silkensen.