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ECE professor J.J. Garcia-Luna-Aceves has been awarded a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Intelligent Digital Infrastructures. He plans to go back to first principles to reimagine a smarter, more equitable Internet. (Photo: Matthew Tierney)

ECE professor J.J. Garcia-Luna-Aceves has been appointed a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Intelligent Digital Infrastructures. In this role, he plans to tap into the unused intelligence ‘under the hood’ of the computer networks that comprise the Internet both the physical layer of routers and switches, and the protocols and algorithms that distribute the data.  

The CERC program is among the most generous in the world and funds ambitious research projects to help position Canada as a global leader in innovation.  

“The Internet we are using today was designed 54 years ago,” Garcia-Luna-Aceves says. “I mean, I wouldn’t drive a 50-year-old car. But that’s what people are doing. 

“There have been adjacent technological advancements over the years in radios, machine learning and the like, but the main algorithms used in the Internet protocol stack haven’t followed suit.” 

Garcia-Luna-Aceves points to the smartphone’s upward trajectory as a counterexample.  

“Your smartphone is intelligent,” he says. “What makes it so? To act intelligently one needs memory. Endowing network entities with vast amounts of memory capacity would allow us to rethink the routing protocols that are the backbone of the Internet.” 

Garcia-Luna-Aceves himself is responsible for sections of that backbone.  

In the late 1980s, he developed an algorithm to handle the fast communication demands of a flying network of missile interceptors. Though it was never used for this purpose, CISCO adopted the algorithm as part of their Enhanced Interior Gateway Routing Protocol (EIGRP), called DUAL, which is still widely used today. 

“That technology was great for that time,” says Garcia-Luna-Aceves. “But we need to build routing tables that not only take into account policies but the characteristics of the use the content and the service being accessed and the intent for the communication.” 

To get there, he says we need to go back to first principles. We must forget the limitations we had 50 years ago in hardware and bandwidth and ask ourselves how we would design the Internet today. 

That means we need to look at whom the technology is enabling and whom it is not.  

“Any solution needs to be not only scalable but affordable and deployable in different settings,” he says. “There are areas, communities and industries today that the Internet does not reach where it has potential as a technology enabler. Applications in agriculture, in fishery, you name it. And we can only learn about them by talking to those who have been disenfranchised in the past.” 

Garcia-Luna-Aceves plans to launch a new multidisciplinary research hub, called the Centre of Excellence for Networking Innovation in Toronto (CENIT), that draws on international researchers and industry partners to further his vision. 

“Professor Garcia-Luna-Aceves has his sights on an ambitious and impactful project. Everything in his distinguished career suggests he’s the person for the job,” says Professor Deepa Kundur, ECE Chair. “I enthusiastically congratulate him on his CERC, a well-deserved recognition of his incredible talent.”  

“It’s an opportunity like very few others,” says Garcia-Luna-Aceves. “It’s a clean slate to pursue my research. That I can do so in one of the best, most inclusive cities in North America is an added blessing.” 

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