‘Over the next decade, we need to reinvent the internet’

2 Jun 2021

Prof Dan Kilper. Image: Connect

The newly appointed head of the Connect research centre tells us what it’s like working at a ‘supercollider but for internet technology research’.

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In February, Prof Dan Kilper was appointed as the new director of Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre for future networks and communication.

Hosted at Trinity College Dublin, Connect has received renewed public investment for its work in researching reliable, sustainable and dependable networks fit for the future of communications. And, as Kilper explains, the centre places a strong focus on identifying commercial opportunities for this research.

Kilper also serves as professor of future communication networks in Trinity’s School of Engineering and co-chair of the Optics Working Group within the IEEE International Network Generations Roadmap, a 10-year plan to take network technology beyond 5G.

‘I believe Dublin has the potential to become the top destination globally for smart city innovation’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a teenager I was a fan of Spider-Man. But it wasn’t his superpowers that sparked my interest, it was his interest in and respect for science. The idea that science brings great power and great responsibility made an impression on me. I could see how science could be used to enable people to do superhuman things and save the world.

While this thinking was naive, the general theme has stuck with me throughout my career, albeit becoming more nuanced over time. I’m convinced that it’s a mistake to try to divorce science and engineering from their societal contexts. Scientists and engineers can and should have a strong voice in how their research is ultimately used. And everyone should seek to understand and have a voice in science and engineering and how each is used in our lives.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I study communication networks that make up the internet and investigate technologies that will enable us to send data faster and more affordably, while using less energy. I’m also interested to understand how the direction of technology research might impact on society and, in particular, how equitable its benefits might be.

One of my main projects, which started before I came to Ireland, is the Cosmos testbed in New York City. Working closely with Gil Zussman at Columbia University, Dipankar Raychaudhuri and Ivan Seskar at Rutgers University, and Sundeep Rangan at NYU, we have developed a unique research environment that allows us to experiment on optical, wireless and electronic networking technologies for future smart city applications. Think of this as a supercollider like CERN but for internet technology research.

An unexpected outcome of doing research in this real-world testbed is that it introduced me to many issues around how technology is used by society. I’ve had the chance to work with Olivier Sylvain at Fordham University and Sheila Foster at Georgetown University, who are both law professors. They opened my mind to thinking of communication networks as a public good, the governance of technology, and how that might connect to the technology research.

This work is continuing now in Ireland through the Connect Open Ireland testbed, an open networking testbed in the Smart Docklands led by Marco Ruffini at Trinity College, and Pervasive Nation, an LPWAN internet of things (IoT) testbed covering all of Ireland, both of which we are federating with Cosmos through a Next Generation Internet grant.

Part of the attraction for me in coming to Ireland is that Dublin is such an excellent location for this type of advanced internet research. In fact, I believe it has the potential to become the top destination globally for smart city innovation and we’re working in that direction.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I think many people are aware that Moore’s Law for semiconductor chips is approaching the end of its exponential trend. Optical fibre spectral efficiency (ie how much information you can push through a fibre) is similarly reaching its fundamental limits and electronic switch chips have reached thermal density limits. Basically, we’ve pushed the current internet technologies, across the board almost, as far as you can take them.

As a result, over the next decade, we need to reinvent the internet or at least the technologies that make it up. In doing so, we want to rebuild it sustainably in ways that are equitable and provide us with the tools to achieve sustainability broadly across society. This is the larger ambition that my research addresses today.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The Connect team has already created five spin-out companies and I have a spin-out, Palo Verde Networks, which is preparing to open shop in Ireland. These companies focus on a range of really exciting areas such as providing energy solutions for data centres, adding intelligence to fibre networks, deploying IoT sensors for smart city applications, and leading the implementation of next-generation quantum computing.

The Connect team has also filed more than 50 patents and 150 invention disclosures. I’m looking forward to building on this culture of innovation.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an internet technology researcher?

The Wright brothers’ invention was not actually an aeroplane, it was the flaps on the wings that allow you to control the plane and avoid it flipping over. In my field, everyone knows broadly what future networks should and will look like and what they need to do. The challenge is figuring out which features – like flaps on an aeroplane – will suddenly make the whole thing feasible and open up an explosion of innovation around a new technology.

How would you address any common misconceptions about internet technology research?

We all need to think of ourselves as digital citizens and play an active role in the governance of these digital spaces and infrastructure, just as we do with physical spaces and infrastructure.

Right now we’re seeing the equivalent of the ‘robber barons’ at the turn of the last century trying to control these digital spaces. As someone doing research to make these technologies better, I don’t want my innovations to go to serving an elite few. I want my research to serve everyone and even to be a force for empowering the most vulnerable. But, like anything, the broader public needs to speak up and have a voice to help make this happen.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Some folks are saying that if the 20th century was the age of the electron, the 21st century will be the age of the photon. So, in the future, the electronics in every computer (and in devices such as smartwatches) will have photonics integrated into the same package. This will require breakthroughs in how we make chips, in how we use chips in networks and how software runs on and controls these chips. This is the ‘aeroplane’ that we need to invent for future networks, we just need to figure out the flaps.

If we can meet this challenge, it has the potential to enable us to grow the internet (including the internet of things) sustainably for decades to come, enjoying all of the benefits that entails, including its use as a tool for climate action.

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