The Convergence of Communication and Computation with Dr. Vida Ilderem

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What type of talent is essential for the future of wireless communications? We need people with a systems mindset. The guest for today’s episode is Dr. Vida Ilderem, Vice President at Intel Labs. Vida discusses with Carrie Charles how wireless communications require a plethora of expertise to succeed in the future. All the way from engineering to social science. That’s why we need talents who know how to bring multiple disciplines together and work as one. Join in the conversation to discover the future of wireless communications and why we need to have a systems mindset.

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Wireless Communications: What Type Of Talent Is Essential? With Dr. Vida Ilderem

I have a wonderful guest with me. Her name is Vida Ilderem. She is the Vice President at Intel Labs and Director of Wireless Systems Research at Intel. Vida, thank you so much for joining me. I can’t wait for our conversation.

Thank you, Carrie. It’s a great privilege to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to share my point of view.

I’d like to start first, Vida, by asking you about your professional journey. You’re an Executive at Intel with a very important position there. What has been your journey? How did you get from where you were to where you are now?

I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT, so in my career in electronics, I’m running wireless system research. It’s quite a journey to talk about here. Intel is my third company. The journey has been very exciting and frustrating because you have boulders and rocks on the road. You have to go around them or you have to remove them. You can always use help from other people. When I reflect on my journey, I can put it in three phases. Phase 1, post-graduate. You’re coming from a school with a good name the expectations are very high. There is pressure for you to perform. You have to establish yourself, show your expertise and earn the trust and respect of your colleagues.

That was the starting point. The second point is I was able to broaden my skillset. I grew up in Motorola, which was my second company. I went into the RF side. I got deep expertise in RF from Silicon all the way into the simulation modeling, packaging, working with our business groups, so manufacturing pretty well around that. I joined Motorola Labs. I had a sponsor who said, “You’re too much in your comfort zone. You need to become uncomfortable.” I joined Motorola Apps and that was where I expanded my background because we had physical sciences, which includes nanotechnology, display, printed electronics and fuel cells. It was a variety of technology.

Later on, I added computer architecture, security, imaging, wireless sensor networks. It was getting broader. I have fantastic people working with me, so I learned a lot. I’m a technical person. When I enter a domain, I like to learn about it by depending on my people to drive that. That was it. The third phase where I am now is about growing people. You have to love what you’re doing. That’s a given. We achieved through people. It’s how to grow them, to help them achieve their aspirations. Once they do that, they’re successful companies. I’m in that leg of my journey.

Show your expertise to earn the trust and respect of your colleagues. Click To Tweet

I love what you said. It’s about growing people and that’s so important. We’re going to talk a little bit more about that later. Tell me about you. Describe your role as Director of Wireless Systems Research at Intel. Also, talk about what is Intel Labs?

In my team, if you want to go to the mission statement, we look at bringing seamless connectivity to improve the quality of experience for people and things because now things are being instrumented too. We start from Silicon, we have design, we have IP and we go all the way to the system level. We have algorithms and we have protocol designs. One of the joys of the job is the multicultural, multidisciplinary and working with different teams. I think that’s what’s exciting and makes us successful, frankly. That’s what we do. At Intel Lab, we are a corporate lab of about 700-plus people, 2/3s with PhDs with a very diverse set of skillsets from engineering and science, our physicist theories but we go all the way into anthropologists and psychologists.

We need social sciences because you need to understand what the users want and need. As engineers and scientists, that’s not our work. That symbiotic relationship is very important between the different disciplines. Intel Lab also have a global footprint. Of course, we are in the US in Guadalajara, Mexico, in China, India, in Europe, Israel and Germany. We have a good footprint and have access to talent globally. The other thing the lab does is three tenets or pillars. One is exploration. What do we mean by exploration? The people always ask, “How do you come up with an idea? How do you know what to do?” It’s about partnerships with academia and the government-industry. Those partnerships are very important to not only see but also understand where the world is going.

We innovate. The world is about becoming very data. Our charter is to take advantage or make the data bring this full potential to the plate. We are about sensing, analyzing, moving, storing, computing, securing and designing, all the elements that go into digitizing the digital world and data. Finally, we advise. We want to be the trusted advisor to our colleagues on the corporation. Those are the three pillars that we operate on in Intel Labs.

I know that 5G is a big part of your work. In your view, what’s the current state of 5G? Where are we now? Where are we going? Any new developments that you can share with us that you see or your team is seeing?

We started in 5G around 2011, ’12 working with universities, coming up with the spec and everything else, it takes a long time. Later on, it was kicked off around 2015 or 2016. 5G deployment depends on the standards. This standard is called GPP. The two releases that exist already are called Release 15 and 16. These releases are about enhanced mobile broadband communication. It’s more of a human-to-human communication, giving me more data rates, capacity and better coverage. It builds on 4G type environment. Release 17 is in the works and now there are two more legs to 5G, which is about machine-type communication.

5TT 56 Dr. Vida Ilderem | Wireless Communications Talent

Wireless Communications Talent: 5G is the first generation that brings the machines in.

One is the billions of devices coming in. These are in the field of battery operated. Low-frequency spectrum, less than 2 Gigahertz spectrum. That’s in the works. The other side is called mission-critical machine-type communication. This is who you want to be at least five-nine reliable. You’re going to have very low latency, basically real-time or near real-time response. When 5G deployment started, you see more on the mobile broadband human to human communication. Machine communication is being deployed. I mentioned the spectrum with the machine types being less than two, embedded mobile broadband human to human, less than 6 or 7 gigahertz, mostly around 3.5, which is called CPRS spots.

It is a matter of your system. There’s the millimeter-wave side, which is a 28, 39 in the US, looking at improving even more data rates, lower the latency and that type of thing. I will say the uptake of millimeter-wave has been slow but still in the works. That’s where I would say the state of 5G is now. Where you’re going is that there’s one thing that has happened with the deployment of 5G and where is the data created. That’s what we have to think about. Data is that devices are sensors in the field. We have a lot of data. It’s the advent of IoT with 5G enablement, so we call it a tsunami of data. This created this concept of Edge. We talk about Edge network or mobile edge communication computation.

This is where the data is created. You have devices, radio access network, which is not a presented by Edge. You go to core network and data center or cloud computing. With Edge, where we are going is not the computation is getting closer to where the data is created. That’s growing. The exciting thing about here is now you have the computer and comp working together. The data reduces latency significantly because you’re where the data is. It’s a shorter round trip time. That’s where we’re going. Another development is it’s not new but it’s taking off now. It’s what we call private networks. This is where you look at a local area network that deliver for a very targeted coverage, think stadiums or factory. That is taking off, too, with the 5G and Wi-Fi coming together. Those are the next things we see where we are going in this domain.

You spoke a little bit about how communications and computation have merged or come together. How do you see that in the future? What does this merge look like in the future?

I would say because of Edge, your devices are everywhere. You have many Edges which are heterogeneous. What do we mean by heterogeneous? You have different devices, protocols, 3G, 4G, 5G protocols. You have dynamicism, notes coming and go. Your car is the very high-velocity area. The Edge is distributed. We have many Edges so that computation is distributed. What we see is this distributed computed all over the network. The network enables the computation coming to the data and the competition enables the network to perform more efficiently for this type. Also, there is the storage angle too where you store the data. That’s the coming together of these two.

When we talk about the next G and what barriers or challenges, do we face with bringing 6G to life? What’s next?

The wireless industry needs a plethora of expertise to be successful in future. Click To Tweet

Standardization works on everything. Each G takes about ten years to peak but when you have that G, you still have the previous Gs. Let’s see what the previous generations are to set it up for the 6G in this case. 1G was analog, so nobody even talks about it. 2G was about voice. Voice was king for the first digital set of networks. 3G became more about broadband. Now you have voice plus data. People started downloading a lot of images and videos. 4G brought mobile broadband on the go. I want to take my information anywhere.

I want to have access to my data. 5G is the first generation that brings the machines in. Building on the human team and communication, bringing the machine type communication and human to machine communication as well. It’s transforming the network because the network was not built for machines. Why do I say that? Barely enough things are coming on online. They go like a blip. They transfer and go down. The requirements are very different than running a video of watching live streaming. What 5G did is allowing us to bring a new type of network. What is 6G? It’s all about data.

Data is queen. I like to say queen instead of the king.

We have this large amount of data created and you want to make sense of this data. You don’t want to transport or move the raw data because it takes a lot of bandwidth energy. There’s a huge overhead associated with that. This is when AI comes in, artificial intelligence or machine learning, as a subset. Now you want to make sense of the data you’ve collected and you want to send the information that is associated with that. 6G brings the third pillar. Now you have communication, computation and AI to help fit the real-time-ness and the lower latency, higher reliability and making sense of the information. That’s where we see it’s going as a confluence of these three disciplines. You still have to optimize the power, performance, quality of service and everything security are becoming important too. It’s about data.

Has your team started working on 6G already and research?

Yes. Let’s go back to partnerships. I’m working with academia and in this case, NSF. We have two centers with NSF and the first one is called MLWiNS, which is Machine Learning for Wireless Intelligent Network Systems. They picked up this center with NSF in September of 2020. You’re looking at three research vectors. One is how to apply machine learning for improving wireless performance. The other one is how to have better use of spectrum through machine learning. Finally, since we said everything is going to be distributed, how to have distributed learning over wireless and apply the learning part of it to wireless. That’s MLWiNS. There’s a new center. Nine companies actually have joined in these entities and it’s called NSF. They’re in a proposal mode right now. It’s called RINGS. It’s about Resilient Intelligent Next-Gen Systems. It’s about looking at the resiliency of the network. We believe it’s very important and the security, how do you gracefully degrade the service rather than bring changes in that. That addresses all the protocol layers there.

The future is so exciting and I can’t help but think about the people component. We’re going to need not just the amount and the number of people but the type of talent that we’re going to need. In your perspective, what type of talent is needed now and for the future in wireless communications?

5TT 56 Dr. Vida Ilderem | Wireless Communications Talent

Wireless Communications Talent: Activate a pipeline at the university level.

I would say that because we say we are looking at comps, compute AI, all these things coming in, it’s very hard for a person to have all these competencies but I would say you need some depth in one of them, and then you can broaden yourself in the others. It’s because of this multidisciplinary type of research, you have to have system mindsets. We need somebody with that mindset. You need different competencies from obviously computer science and engineering, math, even as I said, social scientists, information series. It’s a plethora of expertise you need to be successful in the future. I don’t think you can embody that in any one person but I look for people who have the capability of being deep in 1 or 2 disciplines and in a bigger sense of that domain because everything is touching everything now. There is a fusion going on here.

Do you feel that universities are producing the right type of talent that we need and in what you discussed?

Yes, and we do work with universities, so we do get internships. When they come on board, we will leverage the expertise they’re coming in and they also did get exposed to the team members and what they’re working on. We have established centers separate at NSF directly that universities. We call them intra-science and technology centers. In this case, we have one PI at the university and we have a principal investigator on our side. We work very closely with that group of professors and their students. We bring that multidisciplinary thought process in. Obviously, it’s very hard to scale that but we’ve been doing that ever since I’ve been with Intel. It’s a pretty good way of showing people what you need to be successful.

How do you apply wireless expertise to other domains at Intel? Let’s say using the wireless expertise and using those transferable skills in another area. What are some examples of that at Intel?

Wireless is about waves and my teamworks in high frequencies. A great example I can give you is quantum computing. You have your quantum bits sitting at very low temperatures in millikelvins. Usually, what happens is your instrumentation is sitting at room temperature. You have all of these wires, could be thousands of wires coming out of this refrigeration system. What my team has done is using our RF understanding and design capability, we’ve designed this controller, which sits at 4 Kelvin, so still cooler but not the coolest, not in millikelvin. We call that whole stretch. We have published that in ISCC, which is a conference for this. We have also published it in the press. It’s where we applied what we know from our designs and we applied it to quantum computing. Who would have thought about applying radio frequencies rather than having a wire going down all the way to millikelvin? That’s an example of what Javi and I are doing are extending our expertise into a different field.

That’s a perfect example of re-skilling and up-skilling, and I do think it’s exciting. When we look at the future, I know some people might be nervous about this automation and machines but what you’ve described is that perfect use of those transferable skills and saying, “You know this already. You can learn this and be of great value to the organization and society.” That’s exciting news. I want to switch gears a bit and ask you some questions about your path and you, being a female executive in the tech space. What challenges have you faced on your climb to the top and maybe some lessons that you’ve learned?

As women, we need to support each other more. Click To Tweet

I would say number one is networking. I was not good at it. I thought my work would speak for itself and that’s not true. Networking in a sense of talk about your work, talk about these different mediums to talk about your work. That communication is so important. Network with your peers and colleagues and learn from them. I think I missed a bit there, again, starting from graduate school, that experience to work. A hard lesson to learn but it’s a learning experience. Some of us are wired for it, no pun intended. As women also, I think we need to support each other more. There are very few of us and we shouldn’t compete against each other. It’s very important to establish a reputation or expertise and earn the respect. Those are some lessons learned and to work hard. It’s not delivered to you on a silver platter. You have to work for it.

I know that you mentor quite a few women. In your role, you serve as a mentor. What should women keep in mind as they strive toward those executive roles? Can you give us a few tips?

Network, talk about your work and support each other. It’s important is to have a sponsor. A sponsor is different than a mentor. The sponsor is basically an advocate to talk about you or your work when you’re not in the room. A mentor is more of a one-to-one relationship on how to get better in whatever the person’s need is. The sponsor is important. You can be purposeful about it or you can have a sponsor that you don’t even know you have one. That goes to your communication and talking about your work and people seeing the results you deliver. You have to deliver results. That would be my tip. Find the advocate. I think that helps.

Let’s say you’re looking for a sponsor or there’s a woman who needs a sponsor. Is this something where she reaches out to someone and requests this person to be her advocate? I know you spoke briefly about it but what do you tell your mentees when they are in need of a sponsor?

I usually offer names and I say, “Would you like me to approach these people?” This is depending on what the function is, the mentee’s role is. With that permission, I approach the person. I say, “Would you be willing to be a sponsor for such and such?” I would put a brief description, a short bio of the individual, what they do, who they are, their essence. If they say yes, I do the introduction. I hook them up. Also, we have a sponsor, Patricia, also at Intel, which has been very helpful and powerful for upcoming women.

I know that diversity is a huge challenge in all companies. It’s even more of a challenge now, post-COVID, because so many women have left the workforce. I know this is a much bigger question than we can answer right here, but maybe give me a few thoughts that you have. What can companies do to bring more diversity to their leadership teams?

5TT 56 Dr. Vida Ilderem | Wireless Communications Talent

Wireless Communications Talent: You don’t have to be in the wireless domain to have bright ideas. They’re all over the place. It’s how you apply different ideas and bring them to your domain.

Number one, you need a healthy pipeline. If you don’t have a pipeline, it doesn’t matter. I would say you have to activate at the university level. You bring people at the lower grade levels but they grow in the company. They learn the ropes. The other thing I would say is important is to give the opportunity because when we apply for something, we want to make sure we check all the boxes. It is okay to check in with 60% success. Have the courage to go forward. That courage is important. I rely on job shadowing and rotation opportunities to grow them. This is what this role means. In Italy and the US, we offer sabbaticals. Maybe you want to give them sabbatical coverage for a bigger role in the next opportunity for them.

Those are some of the things important in sponsorship that talked about, to help advocate for them. The other thing we’ve done is to create a cohort of executive women so that we support each other and we support the upcoming women. It’s been pretty powerful and very important because you have to keep your eye on the ball. You have to develop the pipeline and the next generation of women and minorities. That’s why I emphasize the pipeline, the sponsorship advocacy. The other thing COVID showed us is family benefits, which go for both men and women. It’s not diversity-specific. What benefits do you offer? People can work from home or can have that peace of mind with their children being there or providing support or whatever it is that they need. Those are very important pieces going into the pipeline side of it.

I could talk to you forever. I feel so much smarter talking to you this time. I’ve learned so much. This has been wonderful. This is great. This is not every day that I get to talk to a PhD in Tech. I’m so honored by this. The last question is what new technologies are you working on now? What’s most exciting to you?

What excites me is challenges, when somebody says, “This cannot be done.” I have a very strong team. One obvious angle we’ve talked about is going towards 6G. What does the future look for wireless that way? Another angle is how we can apply our competencies to a new area like quantum computing. By training, I’m experimentalist. Anything that we can create IP and design and taking it all the way through the process and create a system of proof of concept, it’s very exciting for me personally and for my team because we all learn. We have people with different passions and expertise and they get exposed to different areas. If you stop learning, the excitement goes away. For me, it’s to learn new things and keep reading. Let me tell you, the ideas come. I love watching sci-fi Hollywood movies.

I think that there’s a lot of future there. You can get a lot from the sci-fi area in the movies.

You get to pick up ideas from movies.

Look at The Jetsons. When I was younger, that’s what I watched. Now all of that seems to be coming to reality soon. Flying cars and all of that.

If you stop learning, the excitement goes away. Click To Tweet

The autonomous system is the next big thing. All this connectivity and communication and AI, is what’s enabling it. Of course, on the other side, it’s the safety, reliability, all the policies and regulations, which is a different additional thing to make it real. That’s some exciting stuff on the table.

One more question. Tell me about your creative process and how you innovate and come up with ideas. How did they come to you besides the sci-fi moving? I’m curious.

I read a lot, even normal technical journals and other types of journals like business journals. I gave you an example from my previous life when I was at Motorola. I read a book on materials. It was on construction. I was looking for movable materials, materials that change shape or characteristics based on temperature or voltage for the application I was thinking about. I opened this book, which is all pictures. I’m flipping through it. There were materials out there that did what I was looking for but they were totally different disciplines.

There were these paints and when you touch them, they change color. Imagine you have a cell phone with a battery and you didn’t have a battery cover. As this thing heats up, it changes color. It tells you it’s time to do something. You applied rotation needed from the wires. There were a lot of ideas I picked from here. We ordered it, we worked with the team and they went for it. It’s how you connect the dots but you don’t have to be in the wireless domain to have bright ideas. They’re all over the place. It’s how you apply different things and bring them to your domain.

I appreciate that. I appreciate the reading part because I do believe in the days that we live in that we don’t have as much time for reading. The more brilliant people and leaders that I speak with, everyone reads. I think it is something that we need to make time for. It does produce those innovative ideas where you can connect the dots. Thank you for sharing that. I’m going to do more reading. I read a lot but I always need to read more.

It’s to get the juices flowing and thinking.

Vida, thank you so much. This has been absolutely a joy for me. I appreciate you coming on the show and I know that our audience has gotten a great deal from this interview. Thanks for coming on.

Thank you for the opportunity.

You take care.

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About Dr. Vida Ilderem

Dr. Vida Ilderem is Vice President and director of Wireless Systems Research (WSR) at Intel Labs. WSR explores breakthrough wireless technologies to fulfill the promise of secure, energy efficient, seamless and affordable connection and sensing for people and things. Prior to joining Intel in 2009, Vida served as vice president of Systems and Technology Research at Motorola’s Applied Research and Technology Center, where she was also recognized as Motorola Distinguished Innovator.

Vida holds a doctorate and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a bachelor’s degree in physics from California State University, Fresno. She has 27 issued patents and has given numerous invited talks and keynotes at IEEE and other venues on nanotechnology, RF, IoT & Wearables, 5G/5G+, and innovation.

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