UC Berkeley research team wins Nokia Bell Labs prize

Nokia Bell Labs/Courtesy

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A UC Berkeley research duo won $100,000 and the Nokia Bell Labs Prize a global competition for innovation Thursday for their work on “A Classic Spin on Quantum Computing.”

The research team, electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, professor Jaijeet Roychowdhury and EECS doctoral student Tianshi Wang, created a new type of processor element that computes answers to discrete optimization problems, which can be applied to diverse areas.

“The Bell Labs Prize is a unique opportunity for innovators around the world to collaborate with Bell Labs researchers to expand the potential of their innovations,” said Nokia corporate chief technology officer and Nokia Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon in a press release. “Applicants … must convince their Bell Labs mentors and the judging panel that their innovation has the potential to change the world.”

The duo designed a chip that solves a set of computational problems which is known for growing increasingly complex as the number of variables or choices in the problem increases at “unprecedented efficiency,” according to the press release. Discrete optimization problems, by definition, have a finite number of discrete solutions, but the number of solutions can grow exponentially.

According to Wang, these types of problems are common in daily life.

“Such problems are abundant in our life, from routing taxis/Ubers/Lyfts while minimizing the travel distance, to scheduling tasks to machines in a factory for lowering costs, from calculating protein structures to optimizing networks and power grids,” Wang said in an email.

The team’s innovation is unique because of its low cost and high efficiency in solving these complex problems, according to the press release. These problems are a challenge and must be solved “in real time” quickly and on a large scale, according to Wang.

The duo achieved a function that digital computers today struggle to perform, generally thought to be reserved for quantum computers.

The competition, which started in April, received 250 applicants across the globe whose projects were narrowed down to a select group of five finalists. The finalists were then evaluated by the judges on the innovations’ technical merit and overall feasibility, according to the press release.

The judges included Weldon, Nobel laureate Robert Wilson, highly renowned computer scientist Alfred Aho and previous years’ Nokia Bell Labs Prize winners Samory Kpotufe and Kaushik Sengupta.

According to Wang, he and his mentor intend to scale up their system to contain more variables to solve larger-scale practical problems. Specifically, the team’s innovation shows potential for application toward the development of 5G communication systems.

“Details on the future work and collaboration is still to be decided as it is approaching the end of the year,” Wang said in the email. “We would certainly like to continue these fruitful discussions as they really help bridge the gap between academia and industry.”

Sasha Langholz is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.