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June 19, 2017

Younghyun Kim aims to make our interconnected world a safer place

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

In our modern interconnected world, we rely on cyber infrastructure in our daily lives. We have phones, medical devices, and cars that are connected to the internet—and this rise of interconnectedness creates vulnerability. Younghyun Kim works to minimize this vulnerability and to ensure security in our interconnected world, and a 2017 Grainger Institute of Engineering Faculty Scholar Award supports his efforts.

Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and head of the Wisconsin Embedded Systems and Computing (WISEST) Laboratory, researches safety-critical cyber-physical systems—high-stakes systems that operate using computers and are connected to the internet—such as implantable medical devices.

Implantable medical devices must be open to doctors but closed to hackers—and being connected to the internet makes them inherently vulnerable to wireless infiltration. To circumvent this vulnerability, Kim developed a method of using a sequence of vibrational pulses to exchange encryption keys between doctor and device—somewhat like Morse code, but with vibrations. Hackers can only access this vibration-based communication channel through direct contact with the patient, so it is a way to safely initiate communication before transitioning to a wireless network to transmit a patient’s medical information, such as vital signs.

In addition to the inherent vulnerability of devices connected to the web, extreme energy constraints increase the challenge of developing safe and secure implantable devices. For instance, you cannot recharge a pacemaker as you would a smartphone. A pacemaker should be able to operate for seven years on the same battery, yet should be as small and unobtrusive as possible. “If you have to replace the battery every year, that wouldn’t necessarily be safe,” says Kim.

One approach Kim takes to improve the security and efficiency of such energy-constrained devices is including a dedicated safety co-processor in addition to the main processor, which does the bulk of the work. This allows Kim to incorporate the additional energy-intensive layers of protection only into the safety processer, resulting in a safer and more efficient device.

The Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award supports Kim’s excursion beyond energy-constrained medical devices into other areas of safety-critical cyber-physical research.

For instance, it will support Kim as he grapples with problems at the interface of computational engineering, safety and ethics that the nascent self-driving car industry introduces.

The award will also support Kim as he applies his research to the manufacturing industry. Meticulous orchestration in manufacturing is crucial for both profit and human safety because failure of one component can halt an entire manufacturing system and compromise product safety. And since the manufacturing industry is becoming increasingly connected to the internet, the potential for risk is on the rise. “Being connected to the internet expands the attack surface,” says Kim.

The Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award also will help fund a ‘test bed’ of model manufacturing machines to simulate industrial systems. These test beds will help Kim translate his ideas from theory to reality and offer a proving ground for manufacturers interested in what Kim’s research could mean for their own operations.

From medical devices to self-driving cars to cyber manufacturing, Kim finds fulfillment in seeing his research applied in the real world. “It’s rewarding when I see my work making the world a safer place,” says Kim.