Interview with Dimitrios Rodopoulos (P ’06) on Science & Technology

Dimitrios Rodopoulos was born in 1989 in Athens, Greece, and graduated from Pierce in 2006. He was admitted to the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), graduating in 2012.

In 2016, Dimitrios completed a Dual Engineering Doctorate between the NTUA and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, on the design of reliable integrated circuits. During his graduate studies, he served as Principle Investigator on the Intel Single-Chip Cloud Computer and also supervised more than 10 NTUA Thesis students.

While at NTUA, Dimitrios was a key technical contributor for projects such as: H2020-687628-VINEYARD, FP7-612029-HARPA, FP7-248789-TRAMS, and FP7-245244-MOSART of the European Commission; as well as the Erasmus Brain Project of the Erasmus Medical Center. In 2015, he was invited in an expert capacity by the European Commission to attend, report, and present his work at the International Nanotechnology Conference. He has co-authored more than 30 papers and 5 EPO/USPTO patent applications.

Since February 2016, Dimitrios serves as RnD (Research and Development) Engineer at imec, a renowned international research institute in Belgium that performs research in different fields of nanoelectronics. The Pierce graduate’s work focuses on the design of brain-inspired computing architectures, emphasizing on non-volatile memory technologies. Additionally, he is involved in the design enablement of future semiconductor technology nodes, with specific focus on standard cell library characterization.


Q.: Could you describe what you do in layman’s terms?

I am a member of a department which focuses on the enablement of future semiconductor technologies. Basically, many choices are made when building chips in an advanced technology, much like the chips found in your smartphone: from the materials used during manufacturing, ranging up to the design techniques employed and the system-level specifications. The team I am currently working in looks at system-level aspects. Our job is to sweep through and evaluate the plethora of these options and formulate what the power/performance/size/cost of these chips will look like a couple of technology generations down the line.

A very recent and fascinating aspect of our work is that we are trying to draw inspiration from certain brain functions to make future chips more efficient in certain tasks, such as image recognition for example.

Q.: To someone who doesn’t know much about your field, your work might sound distant from their day-to-day. Could you tell us in what way your work affects people’s everyday life?

Among countless application domains, the advancement of integrated circuit (chip) technology has put smartphones in our hands, computers in medical implants, and satellites around the globe. For many years, people have been experiencing a very consistent trend: a semi-constant rate at which electronics are improved. For example, one could throw away their computer or smartphone every 2-3 years, knowing that the next model is bound to be multiple times more efficient and diversely more capable than the previous one. I guess that this growth and strive-for-efficiency trend is the most fundamental way in which our work affects people’s everyday life.

Q.: There is a lot of debate regarding the application of nanotechnology, what insight can you share with the average consumer?

Well, I don’t know about nanotechnology for certain, but there can be skepticism around applications of various high-tech principles. Technologies that actually make it are the ones that are embraced by the average consumer. Sometimes high-tech backfires, consequently causing skepticism. An educated consumer should be able to filter out a questionable technology from the start and avoid that “backfiring” iteration. I guess, the more informed consumers are, the lower the probability of high-tech backfiring.

In other words, educated consumers adopt technology in an educated way. There lies the value of properly training young people on the working principles and capabilities of science/technology. Probably the systematic nature of these fields could help them exercise their civic duties in an educated way as well, which is a nice added value if you think about it.

Q.: In your opinion, and from your specific field’s point of view, what role does technology play in our lives?

That is a very difficult question. I don’t think the role of technology in a human’s life is tractable nowadays, since it has basically diffused to all aspects of the latter. What we can say for sure is that technology, instead of solely having an assistive role, is becoming a vehicle of expression for human ethics and values as well. The immense degree of technological adoption in all aspects of human activity is gradually turning technological products into the cohesive agent of countries, organizations, and societies. So, in that respect, value systems that spread through technological means – as in the case of social networks – tend to find their way to the actual society. That is a very interesting and potentially daunting realization. The more unconditioned the access to technology is, the more stable and self-correcting this situation seems to be. Essentially, this is where issues like net neutrality and censorship become really important.

Q.: Your work at imec could be viewed as ‘building the technology of tomorrow,’ so what does tomorrow look like to you? 

Oh, it looks fantastically challenging! There is a lot of work to be done and very interesting problems to solve. You see, by scaling technology during the past 50 years and more, we are actually reaching the limits of the physical world. In other words, and allowing for some simplification, making chips smaller starts to get limited by the dimensions of atoms. So, finding a way to sustain the scaling trends of technology and deliver improved integrated systems to the market at a constant rate is becoming increasingly difficult.

Surpassing the domain of integrated electronics, technology is generally deployed at an accelerated rate. The amount of problems that call for technological and automated solutions is increasing. Think of the complexity of topics like climate change, personalized health and social networks. A lot of work is needed to comprehend the data produced in such domains and to actually deduce useful information from it. So, basically, the “tomorrow” of technology looks like a lot of work. Most of the technological challenges we are facing are tractable for the human mind, or at least tractable enough. That’s a rather hopeful note since it means the solutions exist… We just need to systematically search and work towards finding them!

Q.: What’s one of the most exciting technological advancements we can look forward to in the next couple of years?

If I were to pick the most exciting advancement, I’d say it is machine learning. This is basically a formal way of deducing high-level information from raw data. Think of tasks like classifying images or identifying features in a video feed. From a mathematical principle developed many years ago, this domain has grown into a very lively and booming technological field. Companies are building chips that can be trained to classify images, infer sentiments from text or video feeds.

People talk about artificial intelligence and similar stuff, but machine learning is actually what is happening under the hood of this pop culture trend. The possibilities of machine learning are unraveling as we speak.

Q.: In what way did your time at Pierce help shape your personality and/or career path?

I had the chance to experience a variety of scientific stimuli during high school at Pierce. Curiosity about science and technology was well-satisfied, within and beyond the confines of the standard school curriculum. Along with classmates, we experienced a well-nurtured scientific culture: the astronomy club, the prep sessions for the national math/physics contests, trips to the national observatory, master classes on particle physics, and much more.

Of course, none of us ended up working on high energy physics (that I know of), but that doesn’t matter. The specific domain of study is figured out along the way. A proper amount of stimuli to get the mind going: that’s what you need at that age.

Q.: What’s your favorite memory from your school years at Pierce?

I’ve got to give this a scientific twist, given the questions above: I think it was the solar eclipse observation project we rolled out with some classmates in our final year. Really impromptu stuff: we rounded up a friend’s telescope along with one from the physics lab, set them up on the football field, put some filters on the lenses and followed the course of the moon in front of the sun. It was a low-tech but highly inspiring project for that age!