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  • Complex systems

    Computer science's Andy Miner earns NSF CAREER Award to study complex systems.


    You know those games that you find in Cracker Barrel and other similar restaurants.

    The one in the shape of a pyramid with pegs strategically placed in holes throughout the board with one hole empty. The objective of the game is to jump the pegs so that only one is left.

    If you can do this you are considered by the makers of the game to be a "genius."

    Andy Miner, assistant professor of computer science, remembers the game. But he wasn't interested in playing the game for fun. Instead he used his computer skills to solve those games.

    "Back in college I liked to look at puzzles like this game or a Rubik's Cube and try to get the computer to solve them," he said. "I would write code to figure it out.

    "The code wasn't very sophisticated. The computer would run for days to try to find all the possible answers. Now you can solve some of these games in a couple of seconds."

    Miner's interest in the games caught a professor's interest.

    "He said that we could use the same ideas to solve real world problems," Miner said. "It's great that the same techniques we use for fun problems can also be used for the real ones."

    While a Rubik's Cube is ever-present on his desk, Miner is more interested these days in the analysis of complex systems such as computer and communication networks. His work recently netted him a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early CAREER Award. The $400,000 project runs through July 2011.

    Miner develops software to analyze large stochastic models, in particular to study the behavior of real-world computer and communication systems.

    "People expect communication systems to be fast and reliable," Miner said. "Better analysis techniques will give system designers a more accurate picture of how these systems will behave, before they are constructed."

    Miner uses the Rubik's Cube to make his point.

    "When you look at a Rubik's Cube it appears to be compact and small," he said. "Yet if you talk about all the possible behaviors of the system it's very complex with a huge amount of combinations.

    "Computer and communication systems are the same. You can describe them simply yet if you consider all the combinations it gets huge pretty fast."

    Consumers want faster computers and phones. Functionality is important. Throw security issues on top of that and you suddenly have a very complex network.

    "We hope to develop new techniques for analyzing computer and communication systems more efficiently," Miner said, "and then ultimately develop software."

    Miner's research will encompass a variety of techniques, including discrete-event simulation and numerical analysis of stochastic processes.

    NSF Early CAREER Awards must also have an educational component to them. Miner says this research program will be closely integrated with educational efforts through assignments, projects and lectures that will be introduced into undergraduate and graduate courses on discrete-event simulation and analysis of stochastic processes.

Andy Miner
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March 27 to April 9, 2006