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Zhuo Li is a software architect who works on Cadence’s advanced digital implementation flow, namely the Innovus Implementation System and the Genus Synthesis Solution. A recipient of the IEEE Council on Electronic Design Automation (CEDA) Early Career Award in 2013 and owner of 50 patents, Zhuo was recently selected to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s 21st annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.
Zhuo was in esteemed company at the symposium, which brought together 89 engineers ages 30-45 who are doing exceptional engineering research and technical work in a variety of disciplines. Nominated by Cadence digital signoff group senior management, Zhuo joined peers in industry, academia, and government in mid-September in Irvine, Calif., to discuss developments in cybersecurity, natural disaster forecasting, optical and mechanical meta-materials, and the search for earth-like exoplanets. I recently chatted with Zhuo about his engineering career so far and experiences at the symposium.
What do you do at Cadence?
After working at IBM Research for eight years, I joined Cadence a year and a half ago. As part of the advanced digital implementation and signoff team, I help build components of our next-generation flow. I’ve worked on both the Innovus and Genus solutions, building a new pre-route engine to help improve flow correlation and runtime, and a new fast prototyping flow for early design exploration. I’m currently the co-chair of the Designer Track for the Design Automation Conference 2016.
How did you become interested in an engineering career?
When I was a kid, I didn’t know I would be in engineering. I liked literature and mathematics, and I really loved to play with computers. My original major was control automation and I thought it would be cool to build robots. I earned a bachelor’s degree in control automation and a master’s degree in control science and technology, both from Xi’an Jiaotong University, a really strong engineering school in China. When I came to the U.S., I completed my Ph.D. in computer engineering and got interested in EDA. I really love this field—I love algorithms, mathematics…the automation part is really cool.
Tell me about your experience at the U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.
As a first-time attendee, I listened to the talks, interacted with my peers, and asked a lot of questions. It’s a unique format—single sessions where no one brings in laptops or phones. They want people to be engaged, to learn from each other and to share ideas. And it’s really focused on the four sessions covering different areas of engineering. The other thing I liked is NAE organized several break-out sessions to let these young and creative engineers interact with each other. For example, in the first break-out session, there were 13 to 15 participants in the room and each one had one minute (with one slide) to explain his/her research (like an elevator pitch) and then two minutes for Q&A. That quickly gets people knowing each other. In another session that I co-chaired, we discussed the industry-academic technology transfer and cooperation. It is really exciting to interact with people working on the latest research frontiers from all areas of the engineering field: civil, aerospace, material sciences, environmental, chemical and, of course, electrical and computer.
In your opinion, what were some of the most interesting topics discussed?
They were all interesting. Cybersecurity, for example, is a number-one concern in industry and government. We heard from experts on the latest research into hardware, software, and system-level security and also some new funding from government agencies purely for security.
Hearing the latest research about the search for Earth-like planets—to me, that’s an eye-opening experience. We learned the latest on new telescopes and the engineering challenges. They also have statistical simulations and similar ideas as in our (EDA) area. But when we talk about chip yield rate, we talk about the very high 90s. For them, they want 99.9999% accuracy—they only get one chance and millions of dollars as well as lives are at stake. We can learn from each other here.
In the area of materials, we explored optical and electrical properties for some new meta-materials (such as nano-lattices). There are interesting new materials that, in the electrical and optical sense, are invisible. You could send electrical and optical signals that go directly through, with no distortion on the other side.
The natural disaster prediction session focused on techniques for modeling and predicting hurricanes and the Google Earth project. This area uses simulation, image recognition, traditional engineering models, and statistical analysis. Again, there are some similarities to EDA.
How is your experience at the symposium influencing your work at Cadence?
The number one thing people learned from this is, one needs to keep ones eyes open. Many great accomplishments are done with people from all different areas working together, and inter-disciplinary research could bring new breakthroughs. If we look at EDA itself, it is an interdisciplinary area that involves physics, chemical engineering, electromagnetic field theory, algorithm theory, circuit theory and partial differential equations, and many other areas. Also, connecting with top creative engineers from other engineering fields and learning the latest frontiers from other areas may bring some new ideas to our work as well (just like how some EDA researchers apply the circuit theory to flood prediction and cancer therapy, and how EDA people apply N-body theory to parasitic extraction).
I remember during the opening speech of the symposium, Dr. Alton Romig, the executive officer of National Academy of Engineering, introduced the origin of the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering. The NAE operates under the same congressional act of incorporation that established the National Academy of Sciences, signed in 1863 by President Lincoln. Under this charter the NAE is directed "whenever called upon by any department or agency of the government, to investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art." So maybe one day, we will be called to give some advice for matters involving engineering and technology.