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Press Release 13-158

NSF announces new Expeditions in Computing awards

Ambitious investments in fundamental research stand to shape the future of computing and information technologies

Illustration showing molecular structures

Conceptual representation of programming languages for specifying molecular components and systems.
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September 17, 2013

The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) today announced two new Expeditions in Computing awards. Each award will provide $10 million in funding over five years to multi-investigator research teams. These represent the largest individual investments in computer science research that NSF makes.

"Advances in the computer and information sciences drive progress in all areas of science, engineering and education, which positively impacts the U.S. economy, furthers national priorities and bolsters our overall quality of life," said NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett. "America's future depends on strong and sustained U.S. government support in this area. NSF is proud to fund this next round of Expeditions awards, and in supporting fundamental research, to continue its tradition of enabling the nation to maintain its competitive advantage in information technology."

The first Expeditions awards were made in 2008. As of today, 16 awards have been made through this program, addressing subjects ranging from foundational research in computing hardware, software and verification to research in sustainable energy, health information technology, robotics, mobile computing and Big Data.

The two awards announced today contribute to this rich intellectual portfolio. The first will further advances in molecular programming--a quest to understand and apply the principles of information processing at the molecular level in biological organisms. The second aims to improve the holistic design of machine vision systems to approach and someday exceed the capabilities of human vision systems.

"The Expeditions in Computing program catalyzes large-scale, far-reaching and potentially transformative research motivated by deep scientific questions," said Farnam Jahanian, assistant director for CISE. "These two new awards aim to apply our understanding of natural, biological capabilities to the development of revolutionary new computing and information technologies with tremendous potential for societal benefit."

What follows is a description of the two Expedition projects, including the lead principal investigator (PI) and the universities involved in each collaborative effort.

Molecular Programming Architectures, Abstractions, Algorithms and Applications
Lead PI: Erik Winfree, California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
With collaborators from: Caltech; Harvard University; University of California, San Francisco and University of Washington

This project will explore the incredible chemistry and molecular machinery of life, expanding advances made under a previous NSF award. With principles of computer science at its core, this new Expedition project aims to establish solid foundations for molecular programming--that is, systematically programming the behaviors of a wide array of complex information-based molecular systems, from decision-making circuitry and molecular-scale manufacturing to biomedical diagnosis and smart therapeutics.

Building on recent advances in DNA nanotechnology, DNA computing and synthetic biology, the project will develop methods for programmable self-assembly of DNA strands to create sophisticated 2-D and 3-D structures; dynamic biochemical circuitry based on programmable interactions between DNA, RNA and proteins and integrated behaviors within spatially organized molecular systems and living cells. These architectures will provide systematic building blocks for creating programmable molecular systems.

Putting the products of this fundamental research to the test, the project will pursue real-world applications such as molecular instruments for probing biological systems and programmable fabrication of nanoscale devices.

Put more simply, molecular programming has the potential to radically transform the material, chemical, biological and medical industries, and chemistry stands to become a major new field for information technology research in the 21st century.

Visual Cortex on Silicon
Lead PI: Vijaykrishnan Narayanan, The Pennsylvania State University
With collaborators from: University of Southern California; Stanford University; York College of Pennsylvania; University of California, San Diego; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Pittsburgh; Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Pennsylvania State University

This project envisions a holistic design of a machine vision system that will approach or exceed the capabilities and efficiencies of human vision, enabling computers to not only record images, but also to understand visual content at up to a thousand times the efficiency of current technologies.

While several machine vision systems today can each successfully perform one or a few human tasks--such as detecting human faces in point-and-shoot cameras--they are still limited in their ability to perform a wide range of visual tasks; to operate in complex, cluttered environments and to provide reasoning for their decisions. In contrast, the visual cortex in mammals excels in a broad variety of goal-oriented cognitive tasks and is at least three orders of magnitude more energy efficient than customized state-of-the-art machine vision systems.

In particular, this award aims to understand the fundamental mechanisms used in the visual cortex, with the hope of enabling the design of new vision algorithms and hardware fabrics that can improve power, speed, flexibility and recognition accuracies relative to existing machine vision systems.

Smart machine vision systems that understand and interact with their environments could have a profound impact on society, including aids for visually impaired persons, driver assistance capabilities for reducing automotive accidents and augmented reality systems for enhanced shopping, travel and safety.

"Without exception, the Expeditions in Computing awards fund bold, ambitious and exciting research," said Mitra Basu, NSF program director for the Expeditions program. "We are now seeing how they advance the field and lead to exciting results in a variety of applications. We're confident that these two projects have the same potential for pushing the frontiers of computing."


Media Contacts
Julie Pryor, MIT, (617)715-5397,
Megan Hazle, USC, (213) 821-1887,
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311,
Curtis Chan, Penn State, (814) 865-5544,
Kristen Bole, UC San Francisco,
Brian P. Bell, Caltech, (626) 395-5832,
Kristen Bole, UCSF, (415) 476-2743,
Bill Kisliuk, UCLA, (310)206-0540,
Catherine Hockmuthb, UCSD, (858) 822-1359,
Jennifer Latchford, Penn State, (814) 865-9187,
Michelle Ma, University of Washington, (206) 543-2580,
Deborah Williams-Hedge, Caltech, (626) 395-3227,
Paul Kovach, University of Pittsburgh, (412)624-0265,
Jamie Beckett, Stanford University, (650)736-2241,
Mary Dolheimer, York College of Pennsylvania, (717)815-1584,

Program Contacts
Mitra Basu, NSF, (703) 292-8910,

Related Websites
Pitt research team part of $10 million NSF grant to develop “Visual Cortex on Silicon:
Bioengineers Researching Smart Cameras and Sensors that Mimic, Exceed Human Capability:
Team Led by Caltech Wins Second $10 Million Award for Research in Molecular Programming:
The tracking and recognition of objects accelerated on custom hardware using biologically inspired algorithms and models, a video representation by Vijaykrishnan Narayanan, The Pennsylvania State University:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Slide showing the human eye, glasses, walking sticks and devices for visually impaired
The human visual cortex will inspire the design of smart cameras that can aid the visually impaired.
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Closeup image of a computer chip
Computer chips emulating how the brain processes visual information could have broad applications.
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Illustration showing a dog and a shell as isnpiration for engineered nano systems
Biological cells now inspire engineering of complex molecular devices and systems at the nanoscale.
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Photo of researchers on the Visual Cortex on Silicon team with three students.
Researchers on the Visual Cortex on Silicon team with three students.
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Siddharth Joshi at work designing a computer chip
UCSD graduate student Siddharth Joshi at work designing a computer chip that mimics brain function.
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