Cyber-Physical Systems - Are Computing Foundations Adequate?

Edward A. Lee

Position Paper for NSF Workshop On Cyber-Physical Systems: Research Motivation, Techniques and Roadmap
October 16-17, 2006, Austin, TX




Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) are integrations of computation with physical processes. Embedded computers and networks monitor and control the physical processes, usually with feedback loops where physical processes affect computations and vice versa. In the physical world, the passage of time is inexorable and concurrency is intrinsic. Neither of these properties is present in today’s computing and networking abstractions.

I argue that the mismatch between these abstractions and properties of physical processes impede technical progress, and I identify promising technologies for research and investment. There are technical approaches that partially bridge the abstraction gap today (such as real-time operating systems, middleware technologies, specialized embedded processor architectures, and specialized networks), and there is certainly considerable room for improvement of these technologies. However, it may be that we need a less incremental approach, where new abstractions are built from the ground up.

The foundations of computing are built on the premise that the principal task of computers is transformation of data. Yet we know that the technology is capable of far richer interactions the physical world. I critically examine the foundations that have been built over the last several decades, and determine where the technology and theory bottlenecks and opportunities lie. I argue for a new systems science that is jointly physical and computational.