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Ph.D. alumnus Adrian Sampson receives Young Computer Architect Award for his impact in approximate computing and programming languages in hardware

Adrian Sampson in front of a water fall

Allen School alumnus Adrian Sampson (Ph.D., ‘15) has been recognized by the IEEE Computer Society’s Technical Committee on Computer Architecture with the 2021 Young Computer Architect Award for “contributions to approximate computing and hardware synthesis from high-level representations.” This award honors an outstanding researcher who has completed their doctoral degree within the past six years and who has made innovative contributions to the field of computer architecture. Sampson, who completed his Ph.D. working with Allen School professor Luis Ceze and Allen School professor and vice director Dan Grossman, is now a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

“Adrian’s work on programming language-hardware co-design for approximate computing led to a new research area with lots of follow-on research by the community,” said Ceze. “His research impact is complemented by him being an amazingly creative, caring and fun human being. I could not be more proud of him.”

Sampson devoted his early career to new abstractions in approximate computing, with a focus on rethinking modern computer architecture — specifically reducing the energy consumption of computer systems. For instance, Sampson, along with Ceze and Grossman, created EnerJ, a language for principled approximate computing that allows programmers to indicate where it is safe to permit occasional errors in order to save energy. While power consumption of computers is often strained by correctness, guarantees like EnerJ, an extension to Java, exposes hardware faults in a safe, principled manner allowing power-saving techniques like lower voltage. Sampson’s research shows that approximate computing is a promising way of saving energy in large classes of applications running on a wide range of systems, including embedded systems, mobile phones and servers. 

“Modern architecture gives everyone a license to try ideas that are weird and ambitious and potentially transformative,” Sampson said about his work. “It would be silly not to take up that opportunity.”

At Cornell, Sampson and his research group, Capra, are focused on programming languages and compilers for generating hardware accelerators. One area in particular is field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which allow the co-design of applications with hardware accelerators. These are still hard to program, so Sampson and his team created Dahlia, a programming language that leverages an affine type system to constrain programs to only represent valid hardware designs. Dahlia aims to compile high-level programming languages into performant hardware designs and offer open source tools to help programming language and architecture.

“What Adrian has leveraged in clever and impactful ways throughout his career is that many potential amazing performance advantages at the hardware level are possible only if given extra information or assurance from the software as to where the techniques are safe to use,” Grossman said.

In addition to his Computer Architecture Award, Sampson previously was recognized with an NSF CAREER Award in 2019 and a Google Faculty Research Award in 2016, just to name a few, and has published more than 40 papers

Sampson is not the only person with an Allen School connection to earn the Young Computer Architect Award since its inception in 2011: Ceze himself received the award in 2013, and he was also the advisor to Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, who received the award in 2018, and Brandon Lucia, who received the award in 2019.

Congratulations, Adrian!

July 15, 2021