MIT Brings Supercomputing to Android Phone

Many engineering disciplines rely on supercomputers to simulate complicated physical phenomena — how cracks form in building materials, for instance, or fluids flow through irregular channels. Now, researchers in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering have developed software that can perform such simulations on an ordinary smart phone. Although the current version of the software is for demonstration purposes, the work could lead to applications that let engineers perform complicated calculations in the field, and even to better control systems for vehicles or robotic systems.


The new software works in cases where the general form of a problem is known in advance, but not the particulars. For instance, says Phuong Huynh, a postdoc who worked on the project, a computer simulation of fluid flow around an obstacle in a pipe could depend on a single parameter: the radius of the obstacle. But for a given value of the parameter, calculating the fluid flow could take an hour on a supercomputer with 500 processing units. The researchers’ new software can provide a very good approximation of the same calculation in a matter of seconds.

“This is a very relevant situation,” says David Knezevic, another postdoc in the department who helped lead the project. “Often in engineering contexts, you know a priori that your problem is parameterized, but you don’t know until you get into the field what parameters you’re interested in.”

Each new problem the researchers’ software is called upon to solve requires its own mathematical model. The models, however, take up very little space in memory: A cell phone could hold thousands of them. The software, which is available for download, comes preloaded with models for nine problems, including heat propagation in objects of several different shapes, fluid flow around a spherical obstacle, and the effects of forces applied to a cracked pillar. As the researchers develop models for new classes of problems, they post them on a server, from which they can be downloaded.

Advance work

But while the models are small, creating them is a complicated process that does in fact require a supercomputer. “We’re not trying to replace a supercomputer,” Knezevic says. “This is a model of computation that works in conjunction with supercomputing. And the supercomputer is indispensable.”

Knezevic, his fellow postdoc Phuong Huynh, and Ford Professor of Engineering Anthony T. Patera describe their approach in a forthcoming issue of the journal Computers and Fluids. Once they have identified a parameterized problem, they use a supercomputer to solve it for somewhere between 10 and 50 different sets of values. Those values, however, are carefully chosen to map out a large space of possible solutions to the problem. The model downloaded to a smart phone finds an approximate solution for a new set of parameters by reference to the precomputed solutions.

The key to the system, Knezevic says, is the ability to quantify the degree of error in an approximation of a supercomputing calculation, a subject that Patera has been researching for almost a decade. As the researchers build a problem model, they select parameters that will successively minimize error, according to analytic techniques Patera helped developed. The calculation of error bounds is also a feature of the phone application itself. For each approximate solution of a parameterized problem, the app also displays the margin of error. The user can opt to trade speed of computation for a higher margin of error, but the app can generally get the error under 1 percent in less than a second.

Turning the tables

While the researchers’ software can calculate the behavior of a physical system on the basis of its parameters, it could prove even more useful by doing the opposite: calculating the parameters of a physical system on the basis of its behavior. Instead of, say, calculating fluid flow around an obstacle based on the obstacle’s size, the software could calculate the size of the obstacle based on measurements of the fluid flow at the end of a pipe. Ordinarily, that would require several different computations on a supercomputer, trying out several different sets of parameters. But if testing, say, 30 options on a supercomputer would take 30 hours, it might take 30 seconds on a phone. Indeed, the researchers have already developed a second application that calculates such “inverse problems.”

In the same way that a simulation of a physical system describes its behavior on the basis of parametric measurements, control systems, of the type that govern, say, automotive brake systems or autonomous robots, determine devices’ behavior on the basis of sensor measurements. Control-systems researchers spend a great deal of energy trying to come up with practical approximations of complex physics in order to make their systems responsive enough to work in real time. But Knezevic, Huynh and Patera’s approach could make those approximations both more accurate and easier to calculate.

Max Gunzberger, Frances Eppes Eminent Professor of Scientific Computing at Florida State University says that the MIT researchers’ work has a “cuteness aspect” that has already won it some attention. But “once you get over the cuteness factor,” he says, “if you talk about serious science or serious engineering, there’s a potential there,” Gunzberger points out that while the researchers’ demo concentrates on fluid mechanics, “there’s lots of other problems that their approach can be applied to. They built the structure that they themselves or others can start using to solve problems in different application areas.”

Nokia Unveils Bike-Powered Cell Phone Chargers

Nokia has released a pedal powered cell phone charger kit slated for developing nations where the power supply is limited, unreliable or expensive. The kit includes a bottle-dynamo, like the ones used to power a bike light, plus a cell phone holder that attaches to the handlebars. Nokia hopes to begin selling the kits by the end of 2010 for around 15 euros in countries that have a large bicycling population. These dynamos are great sources of renewable and human power and make it that much easier for people to want to choose biking as their main mode of transportation.

Nokia says that charging times will vary according to they cyclist as well as the phone, but riding for a mere 10 minutes at about 6 mph (10 kph) will produce enough power for 28 minutes of talk time or 37 hours of standby time. You can even go as slow as 4 mph and still recharge your phone, although it will certainly take longer to charge it. The device is designed for any phone with a 2 mm charger jack.

The first bike powered chargers will be made available in Kenya for around 15 euros and then go on sale later this year worldwide. When they unveiled the charger, Nokia also showed off four new cell phones designed for developing nations where the electricity supply is limited. The handsets are designed to have a long battery life with six weeks worth of standby time.

Nokia and Cambridge Design Nanotech Mobile

Nokia may not be too funky with their mobile phone designs for mass production but you have to admit, their concept designs are something that look, quite literally, out of this world. Morph, a joint Nanotechnology concept, developed by Nokia Research Center (NRC) and the University of Cambridge (UK) – was launched today alongside the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition, at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Morph features in both the exhibition catalog and on MoMA’s official website.

Morph is a concept that demonstrates how future mobile devices might be stretchable and flexible, allowing the user to transform their mobile device into radically different shapes. It demonstrates the ultimate functionality that nanotechnology might be capable of delivering: flexible materials, transparent electronics and self-cleaning surfaces. Dr. Bob Iannucci, Chief Technology Officer, Nokia, commented: “Nokia Research Center is looking at ways to reinvent the form and function of mobile devices; the Morph concept shows what might be possible”.

Dr. Tapani Ryhanen, Head of the NRC Cambridge UK laboratory, Nokia, commented: “We hope that this combination of art and science will showcase the potential of nanoscience to a wider audience.”

The partnership between Nokia and the University of Cambridge was announced in March, 2007 – an agreement to work together on an extensive and long-term programme of joint research projects. NRC together with the University of Cambridge have decided to work on more projects that, to begin with, are centered on nanotechnology.

Elements of Morph might be available to integrate into handheld devices within 7 years, though initially only at the high-end. However, nanotechnology may one day lead to low cost manufacturing solutions, and offers the possibility of integrating complex functionality at a low price. Hopefully it won’t take that long.