The cutting edge of edge: IBM researcher Wendy Chong brings 5G to life
A mix of research, engineering and empathy has punctuated Wendy Chong’s work on 5G, edge and AI technologies
Ask the average technologist about the history of wireless technology, and you might hear a highly technical discussion of uptime, downtime and meantime to failure, of multiplexing, virtualization and slicing.
Ask Wendy Chong, who has spent more than a quarter century in technology design and research at IBM, and you are likely to get a lively conversation on the life-changing nature of mobile networks from a human’s perspective. As Chong explains it: 1G gave us the ability to talk on mobile devices; 2G gave us the ability to text; 3G let us browse the internet, shop and do social media; 4G LTE allowed us to watch movies and created the app economy.
And 5G, especially when combined with edge computing and AI, is where the possibilities really get interesting—thanks in large part to Chong and IBM’s work over the past decade.
“Imagine downloading an HD movie in under a second,” Chong told Industrious. “With 5G’s high speed and high bandwidth creating low latency and ultra-responsiveness, we start to get gamers facing off in massive tournaments from around the globe, or workers transmitting ultra-HD images for video conferencing without any delay or advancing self-driving cars in the real world.”
It’s now our imaginations, not our bandwidth, that will be the limit. It’s why Chong sees this work as being especially crucial to the world’s ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital innovation has accelerated immeasurably to help keep us safe and improve the way we work, the way we shop and the way we travel. As the lines blur between digital, virtual, augmented and real-world experiences, Chong wants to be both a creator and guide of the very near future.
“Democratizing technologies and being open is not new to IBM,” she said, seated inside her home office, where she now splits her time with work at the storied Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.
Chong, whose current role is a program director and client engagement leader for AI and edge, has always devoted her work to practical application of technology.
She’s been involved with numerous high-profile projects, including one of the first real-world deployments of edge technology as part of a multi-channel mobile app for the 2015 US Open Tennis Championships; a feature on the Weather Channel app that can predict cold and flu in a user’s geographical area; and an in-flight mobile-to-mobile communication system for United Airlines. She also served for two years as former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty’s Technology Team facilitator, and last year, she volunteered for a COVID-19 task force launched by IBM Research.
“I wanted to help because our work has the capacity to create innovative solutions not only to fight the current crisis but also prevent future catastrophes,” Chong said. “Plus, I get to apply machine-learning algorithms on new sets of data from real life, and real data makes our algorithms more accurate and powerful.”
Chong grew up in a close-knit Chinese-American family in Brooklyn. A proud graduate of the New York City public school system, Chong was recognized for her proficiency in math and science. “I was a natural at solving problems,” she said.
She majored in electrical engineering, or “EE,” at the City University of New York and Columbia. “During that time, EE was the hottest area to get into,” she said. “The semiconductor industry was booming and hiring a lot of students. And all my friends were majoring in it, so I went with the wind.”
It was during a class in digital signal processing that a professor from Bell Labs stoked Chong’s interest in real-life applications. “It made me even more curious about the world around us,” she said.
Chong was hired by IBM immediately out of college where she worked in the chip design verification lab. “I spent quite a bit of time in that role, just deeply learning about many aspects of chip design,” Chong said. She still expresses admiration for the brilliance of her colleagues and the beauty of their work, squeezing the greatest efficiencies and enhancements out of the tiniest circuitry.
The edge of tomorrow
Today, Chong credits the luxury to explore big ideas and permission to fail as the conduit that’s led to some of her most creative work at IBM. Particularly on big projects, it’s given her the ability to solve things once deemed impossible.
For instance, Chong and her team used an IBM-developed technology called SIMULCASTR to stream the 2015 US Open Tennis Championship in three different views: an ESPN feed, a camera on top of Arthur Ashe stadium and a fan feed where attendees could upload their views. “It was a nail-biting experience where we didn’t go live until the fourth day of the tournament,” Chong said. “We worked around the clock until it went live.”
One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to use the emerging concept of edge computing to process all those feeds locally, including all the streams coming in from fans. Traditionally, those feeds would have gone through remote servers, creating a delay and taking away from the live nature of the app.
“What a rewarding experience, to be part of the beginning of edge computing,” Chong said.
After the US Open experiment came Mesh Network Alerts, a peer-to-peer communication that works even where little or no network connectivity is available. That work eventually fed into the Weather app, an important feature for those in dangerous weather where connectivity could be limited. For their work, Chong and her team received the IBM Research Division Technical Achievement Award.
Soon after, she worked with United Airlines to bring the same mesh networking to 30,000 feet, enabling communication in another place that had once seemed impossible.
In addition to working “maniacally hard,” Chong credits having confidence and an opinion in helping her rise in a field dominated by men. “Even though many women know the topic, they sometimes lack the confidence to speak up, and voice their opinion,” Chong says. “It’s a skill that you have to constantly work on.”
One place she has not lacked for confidence was getting involved during the COVID-19 crisis. Even before much of the world went into lockdown last spring, Chong rolled up her sleeves and volunteered with a COVID-19 task force launched by IBM’s global research labs.
One initiative, the Worldwide Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions Tracker for COVID-19, was an AI-assisted dataset released by IBM Research. It offered policymakers, public health leaders and researchers valuable insights in controlling the spread of the virus. Resulting interventions included community actions such as school closures, restrictions on mass gatherings, individual actions such as mask wearing, self-quarantine and environmental actions such as public facility cleaning.
“It was so rewarding to work on such history-making research that makes a profound impact on making the world safer,” Chong said.
Her team’s latest work has been on the 5G Edge AI software developer kit, or SDK—work they’ve continued to accomplish remotely in part thanks the team’s earlier network innovations.
The kit provides developers an early look at what’s possible with these emerging technologies. Built on IBM and Red Hat’s OpenShift framework, the kit demonstrates ways to take advantage of high speed, high capacity 5G technology, edge computing and the latest advances in AI, and how these combined technologies converge to create new industry-shaping experiences.
“There have been many accomplishments to be proud of the past year, but also many challenges along the way due to the COVID crisis,” Chong said. “We had to work in new ways and leverage our technology, especially sharing it with others to make it accessible to everyone. That’s what we’re doing with the 5G Edge AI SDK. We want to be open and democratic not only for the end user but the developer, as well. We want to bring the future to light.”