HP Labs

Q&A with HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel - How HP is poised to impact our cyber-physical future

By Simon Firth, HP Labs Correspondent — July 29, 2019

HP Senior Fellow and Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel has played a leading role in fostering HP innovations in chips, systems, data centers, storage, networking, print engines, and software platforms. He’s also widely known as a technology visionary – positing a world where technology companies work to develop intelligent and energy-efficient cyber-physical systems for the common good.

Patel recently gave a keynote speech at HP’s Evolution 2019 conference in Melbourne, Australia on “The Rise of Cyber-Physical Systems.” We caught up with him to hear more about the message he shared and the role he believes HP can play in shaping our cyber-physical future.

 

HP Senior Fellow and Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel

HP Senior Fellow and Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel

HP: Can you first tell us a little about the annual HP Evolution conference?

Absolutely. The conference is all about sharing HP’s newest technologies and its perspective on future trends with partners and customers based South Asia and Australasia. This year we had more than a thousand people attend and had one of the highest levels of participant engagement among the conferences I’ve spoken at. People came early, stayed late, and were keen to engage and learn.

HP: What was the message that you were sharing?

My talk was about how cyber-physical systems will shape the rest of the 21st century. One of my jobs is to look at current “megatrends” in the social, economic, and technological spheres and think about where they are taking us. I wanted to share how we work within this context to build technology-driven solutions that make a difference to society and to our customers.

 

Research for the cyber physical age

Research for the cyber physical age

HP: Can you describe what you mean by cyber-physical systems?

In the machine age of the 19th century, you thrived if you had command of the physical world; i.e. a deep domain understanding at a fundamentals level. In the 20th century’s cyber age what really counted was being able to generate, manage, and act upon data. We’re now entering a cyber-physical age where we will need both – domain and data. We’ll need a deep knowledge of physical fundamentals. But on top of that we’ll be adding multiple computing disciplines like data science, user experience, artificial intelligence, security, economics, social sciences, and more.

My HP Evolution keynote harkened back to the depth of knowledge in physical fundamentals instilled in me by the 1970s British O-Level and A-Level standards. Classic textbooks such as “O-Level Physics” by A.F. Abbott and “Physics” by Halliday and Resnick cemented visually, and in great depth, my knowledge of areas such as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics that I still find myself using. Everyday, as I work on complex cyber physical systems – our 3D Multi Jet Fusion “art to part” pipeline is an example – I use the science fundamentals I learned in my high school, undergrad, and graduate studies, to pursue a first principle-based approach to addressing challenges of the 3D cyber physical stack and digital manufacturing.  

So I don’t agree with the oft-held opinion that physical systems are black boxes, and that availing yourself of data and knowledge discovery (AI) approaches is sufficient. In our new world, we really need people who also know physics, chemistry, biology and what happens as the cyber world meets the physical world. We need people who operate at the crossroads of domain, data management, and knowledge discovery (AI/Machine Learning).That’s the starting point if you want to have an impact in the future.

“Our idea-to-value journey takes us from wide ranging research, through carefully focused advanced development, to creating a solution that can be reproduced at whatever scale we need it to.”

Chandrakant Patel, HP Senior Fellow and Chief Engineer

HP: What do you need on top of that?

My argument is that you need an innovation framework that allows you to progress from an idea to a technology of proven value. That’s what we’ve been building at HP. Our idea-to-value journey takes us from wide ranging research, through carefully focused advanced development, to creating a solution that can be reproduced at whatever scale we need it to. Importantly, it requires that we maintain an end-to-end perspective and that we are flexible and constantly adapt and iterate as we go. 

HP: Can you give an example of how this works at HP?

Say you have an idea for a new nano-sensor, which is an area in which we are doing a lot of interesting work. Thirty years ago our researchers might have just focused on perfecting the sensor first without worrying too much about where it would be used. But now its end use must be in our mind from the start. That’s where the megatrend context comes in – by understanding emerging global needs and capabilities, and knowing our capacities as an innovative organization, we can see whether the idea has promise.

Once we’ve established an end solution’s potential value, we look for the best path to realize that value – and that will inevitably involve multiple disciplines. So when you are thinking about a sensor, for example, you also think about the data associated with the sensor. You’ll want to consider the intention, the volume, the variability, and the context associated with the data. Given those attributes, and your real time needs, you can then ask what latencies you can tolerate. Is it possible, for example, to sense, aggregate, analyze, and act by putting the data in the cloud, or must you consider a computing system at or near the source to meet the real time needs? As you are doing this, you research the idea, then you develop it to an industrial grade, and finally scale it out.

This is exactly how we approached the development of our 3D printing solutions, for example. And you see it in the creation of something like Fitstation, which delivers custom-fitted and individualized footwear through 3D scanning and 3D printing. It’s a great example of how we’ve been adapting and iterating as we’ve refined our ideas.

HP: Can you point to a couple of HP Labs innovations that are going through this idea-to-value journey right now?

One would be HP IonTouch, the low-cost passive information storage solution that was developed within HP Labs. It was the brainchild of a few creative and passionate engineers who understood the trends that were opening up multiple potential use cases for such a technology. They did the research, built a demo, found partners to work with, and now have a pilot program in operation at our headquarters building.

Another is the exciting work that we are doing to advance SERS – Surfaced Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy – for chemical diagnostics, an effort that is also being led by researchers in HP Labs. They aren’t just thinking about the technical details of the sensor. They’re also thinking about the application of the sensor – for measuring bacterial growth or for sensing contamination – and articulating the overall systemic, multi-disciplinary solution, including what partners might be necessary to devise the solution.

HP: How is HP positioned to help drive the future that you outlined in your talk?

The cyber-physical age – this age of convergence between the physical and the digital – will manifest itself in the new systems that we’ll build and use. Until now, for example, we’ve generally wanted to route our data through the cloud and we have run into all kinds of networking, bandwidth, and latency issues as a result. But in the future, computing will be done at the data source itself or just one network hop away. That increases efficiency and reduces both latency and total cost of ownership. It produces technical advances that are good for people, for our planet, and of course for the companies that build them.

The companies that will bring that cyber-physical vision to fruition have to understand endpoint computing. At HP, we have always worked at the network’s edge. It’s in our DNA. We have a deep understanding of domain areas like heat transfer, materials engineering, and fluid dynamics. And today we are hiring people across a wide range of both cyber and physical disciplines – especially in HP Labs. We aren’t just looking for the very best hardware and software engineers. People with expertise ranging from materials science, to jewelry design, to biotechnology are joining our experts in software, data, artificial intelligence, and user experience to collectively drive our innovation pipeline forward.