Limitless potential of Future Computing

Interview with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Dr. John Pellegrino

Dr. John Pellegrino is the director of the Computational and Information Sciences Directorate and chief information officer for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.
He is responsible for basic and applied research and its transition in the areas of network and information sciences, cyber defense, high-performance computing and battlefield environments. His duties include research program development and coordination, technology transition and support to current forces, as well as responsibility for laboratory network operations. He has technical oversight of the state-of-the art-high performance computing assets, computational capabilities, and wide area networking methodologies for the laboratory, Department of the Army, and DOD; as well as oversight of the DOD Major Shared Resource Center at ARL and the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center.Pellegrino earned a bachelor of arts in physics from Gordon College in 1976, a master of science in physics from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980 and completed his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981.
He has authored and co-authored more than two dozen technical papers and reports, and is co-editor of the book “Accousto-Optic Signal Processing.”

Army Technology Magazine recently interviewed Dr. Pellegrino.

Question: What is your vision for the future of computing?

Pellegrino: We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with computing.

We see the future of computing continuing down two paths. One, to be the big iron computing, or the massive computing architectures and machines. It is massively parallel and incorporates new kinds of algorithms. It’s enabling us to do things like design new munitions and design new materials from scratch.

We’re just beginning to see how to do modeling of materials so we can have control over every stage of the development and therefore come up with totally new classes of ultra-lightweight and ultra-strong materials for armor or new kinds of electronics for example.

As we march forward, we’re going to be tackling big problems in networks. What is a composite network? How does the Internet work? How are we going to be able to protect it, and extract information from it? That’s one whole train of research in computing and application of computing that will be going on.

We have only a vague idea at this time how to protect that information. Cyber-defense is a big issue. The communications, even protecting parts of the communication, how information is connected, how to keep communications robust even in the face of heavy adversarial action … it’s a big deal.

On the other side, it’s the embedded computing that will be in just about everything. We see these things going in a trajectory to be more and more powerful, but to be more embedded and integral with things.

One of the futures of computing that many of us see is that extremely interesting space of the intersection with the human and the computer. The human originality, creativity, the spark, will benefit from the augmentation of more mundane things to really enable that creativity and foster and let it grow without having to worry about the ordinary porting around stuff.

Question: How will modeling and simulation spark innovation?

Pellegrino: As we do modeling and simulation, it’s revealing new kinds of material properties in elasticity, strength and ruggedness. We see how we can exploit this and design  materials to exploit this.

It’s the modeling and the interaction with the models that enables the human, in this case, the scientist and engineer, to get in there and play with all the parameters and see what difference they make. Those kind of simulations used to take us days, or weeks to run. Now we’re able to run certain types of routines in minutes.

It’s the interaction between scientists and engineers with that model, or with that simulation that enable him to go back, re-adjust parameters and discover new properties.

Question: Will computer advances hit a technological barrier?

Pellegrino: It’s funny because predictions of the demise of Moore’s Law [the observation that see a doubling of computer power seen about every two years] have been there for about every five years for the past 30. Every time, something comes along, which enables us to jump over Moore’s Law.

At present, the latest barriers down at the sub tens of nanometer scale [a nanometer is 1/25,000th of a meter] are being surpassed with the introduction of three-dimensional technology. We’re going into the third dimension with interconnections and building up. When I talk up, I’m still talking on the nanoscales.

There are other approaches including quantum computing processing that will be good for special kinds of problems. If you can look at algorithms that have heavy factorization in them, then that is a kind of computing approach that will work or that may work for that.

I don’t see in any kind of near- to mid-term a lessoning of the increase in computing power. I think that will keep marching on and keep getting smaller integrated circuits. I think the bigger challenge is going to be how these pieces all relate, how we protect them and how we use them for the Soldier.

Question: Where will artificial intelligence take us?

Pellegrino: This is a matter of some debate. A computer can compute things faster. It can run through a whole set of variables faster. In the future, we’ll be able to take massive amounts of data and draw new and interesting correlations between them. That kind of data integration may and will give new insights into science and interpretations, but the human still provides that spark of insight that would enable somebody like Einstein to come up with the Theory of Relativity. Humans ask those questions. Computers crunch tons of variables. Humans have insight into meaningful ways to look at this, or say, “Wow! I never thought of looking at it that way.”

Personally I think it will be a long time before we will get to the point where we can call what comes out of a computational architecture, if you will, truly creative.

Question: How does the Army partner with industry and academia?

Pellegrino: In the information technology space, including computers, the information processing and the interaction with humans, we have a very extensive partnership with the private sector. The technology is moving at an enormous rate, and they’re driving many great innovations.

We have a great partnership with academia and industry, including leaders in the area such as Raytheon BBN, and IBM; universities from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Penn State, and others too numerous to mention.

We do great collaborative joint research in the area where our scientists and engineers bring their unique understanding of science and the kind of problems that the military faces together with the innovations that are occurring in universities. It makes for an extremely strong partnership and a very dynamic research environment.

Question: How will ARL’s campaign plan provide new capabilities?

Pellegrino: ARL has embarked on defining key areas for the laboratory, for the Army and for the future. We have gone through and done a delineation of the kind of issues that are important to us. Within the information science campaign we talk about taming the flash floods of information on the battlefield and how a Soldier will interact with it. In the computational sciences, we’ve talked about predictive simulations and the future of tactical battlefield computing.

You look at the blending of those things together with how the human, in our case the human Soldier will interact with those. It sets a very rich field for inquiry.

Then, we can address some of the key problems facing our Soldiers on the battlefield as they encounter adversaries that are extremely powerful in terms of their communications and information access skills.

Question: How optimistic are you about future computing?

Pellegrino: There is almost limitless potential out there. We’re doing some really fascinating work from modeling and simulation of materials by design from the atom all the way up to the interaction of humans and information and hardware – whether that be robotics or information systems embodied in chips – that will enable the Soldier to be very highly instrumented and capable and have more information and access at their fingertips than ever before.

We can envision a future where a Soldier, who right now potentially carries 75 to 100 pounds on his or her back for a mission loaded with batteries, sensors and communications tools, to be free of a lot of that. They may have a robotic companion. They may have more access to localized computational assets. They may not have to, for example, carry a rifle because they will be able to do targeting and identification of things and ask the right questions all from organically emplaced computational assets.

In the not-too-far future, we are going to have much more computational capacity on our persons.

From a medical standpoint, if you look at fictional super heroes, The Flash, or Iron Man – either one, they have a whole bunch of sensors embedded on them that gives every little bit of their medical state and can deliver whatever is needed and appropriate to both enhance their performance and keep them safe and healthy. That’s what we look for, a very highly effective, highly empowered Soldier that is safe, healthy and has what they need to do the job.


This interview appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on Future Computing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness–technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment–to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.

YouTube DoDLive