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Modeling the next technological breakthrough

Engineering and Industrial Applied Mathematics Clinics are designed to get SMS students invaluable knowledge and experience through work on projects within industry or government laboratories in need of outside help on real-world, current problems. These clinics have been operating for over two decades at the Claremont Consortium, and have encompassed over 170 projects. Current and recent partners have included the Boeing Company, Fitch Ratings, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lukas Kroc, research assistant professor in SMS, is serving as the advisor on the newest clinic, launched in the fall semester, which employs students Vladimir Delengov, Yuan Li, and Jennifer Thompson to work with Los Alamos on computer hardware and software development. Kroc previously spent a year doing postdoctoral research at the laboratory in New Mexico after receiving his PhD from Cornell University. Now he is eager to further his own research in modeling methodology with his students and Los Alamos’ scientists.

Kroc’s modeling aims to automate complex systems, a vital task as technology itself becomes more complex (and expensive). While his work is strictly theoretical, Kroc’s models could have practical impact for groundbreaking technology: the Mars Rover, driverless cars, or mobile robots, to name a few. To carry out ambitious tasks, all of these complicated systems need their instructions broken down into simple steps. Compounding the challenge is the uncertainty inherent in these tasks: the Rover might come across an unexpected crater, a driverless car might encounter a fallen tree, or a robot might need to navigate through a crowd of people. His models can create the theoretical foundation for technology that is able to solve the complex problems arising in such domains.

“You need to come up with models of what the computer thinks is out there. And what it thinks is out there is never perfect, so it needs to be able to revise information to keep running correctly,” said Kroc.

In the case of Los Alamos, Kroc and his students will help researchers who are building new computer hardware and software packages designed to simulate molecules at the atomic level. Often, technicians first build the most powerful hardware possible and then software engineers are brought in to write the programs to those specifications. In this case, rather than a two-step process, Los Alamos is looking to create hardware and software in sync. To do so, they are going to need to run through the vast number of different hardware and software configurations in search of an optimal one. The number of configurations grows exponentially and the joint optimization problem becomes extraordinarily complicated.

“Los Alamos is just starting their project, and it’s a big project so it will take more than only students. We’re just trying to be an incubator of ideas,” said Kroc. “But before spending half-a-billion dollars on a computer, it is really important to try to optimize your computing power.”

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