'Public interest' research center will focus on societal applications for new technologies

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

08 DEC 2000 | Miniature sensors and actuators may soon be at work to help save billions in energy costs, reduce damage caused by earthquakes, and prevent fatal heart attacks.

Berkeley is a leader in developing these minature devices and, thanks to a recent endorsement by Gov. Gray Davis and private industry, plans to continue working toward creating its proposed Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

In announcing funding for three California Institutes for Science and Innovation on Dec. 7, Gov. Davis also cited the CITRIS proposal as a fourth outstanding plan and pledged to include funding for it in his next state budget. Under the governor's program, each funded center will receive $100 million in state funding, which must be matched two-to-one by funding from industry.

UC faculty from the Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Merced campuses would collaborate under CITRIS auspices. Their mission: to create inexpensive technologies that are broadly available to the public for broad, practical applications like transportation, health care and emergency preparedness.

"We want as many people as possible, across all walks of life, to benefit from these discoveries," said Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering, at a Dec. 7 press conference announcing the CITRIS plan.

"This center is crucial for not only our state, but the nation," said M.R.C. Greenwood, UC Santa Cruz chancellor. "Taking information technology and transfering this science to save lives and make structures safer is a unique and critical mission."

CITRIS devices could be used to monitor a building's environment for comfort and energy savings, alert health care professionals when a patient is in medical danger, or send data quickly to emergency preparedness agencies.

Other CITRIS projects include the advent of smart highways, linking roadway sensors throughout the state to computers that can analyze traffic for Caltrans and commuters; environmental monitoring systems to help growing urban areas better maintain water and air quality; and optical networking to allow high-speed transmission of data.

Newton noted that the research will involve faculty from sociology, law and public policy as well as engineering and computer science. "This kind of collaboration has not happened in the past," he said.

Industry scientists will be invited to participate in research collaborations, teach new courses and provide internships for students.

Some of this technology is already under development, said Berkeley professor James Demmel, CITRIS associate director. For example, he and others are working on a project to attach tiny sensors to the Golden Gate Bridge. The devices would measure position, motion, pressure and temperature to continually monitor the bridge's structural safety.

Although CITRIS was not funded in this year's round of new science institutes, said Chancellor Berdahl, the governor was so enthusiastic about the center that he pledged to seek financial support from the legislature in the next fiscal year.

Newton said that work has begun to analyze infrastructure needs, identify staff, develop curriculum, continue research and integrate efforts of the three campuses involved in CITRIS. With given the potential funding and the number of faculty committed to working with the proposed center, CITRIS would be comparable in size and budget to a large department at UC Berkeley, he said.

CITRIS began as a grassroots effort by engineering faculty concerned about the future direction and potential of information technology. It is the first large-scale program designed to make new technologies available for practical applications to societal problems.


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