Franchetti’s Riff – Notes in Computer Engineering

bridges vol. 37, May 2013 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

By Juliet M. Beverly

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For Franz Franchetti, associate research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), this year started with a buzz when it was announced that he had received a 4.5 year, $6 million grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The grant, to develop software to fortify the systems of unmanned ground vehicles and high-end cars from cyber attack, is an interesting undertaking for someone who grew up in what he calls the "pre-video game era." Franchetti grew up hanging outside with friends and playing his guitar – until one day when his uncle started building his own PC at home. What originally started as two youthful hobbies became many of the notes and bridges in his career.

"I was about 8-years old and my uncle would let me play with the computer he had built. It had no hard drive, no disks, nothing. That was my first exposure to computers, or Datentechnik as it was called back then," said Franchetti. "Then when I got older, I bought my first computer with my own money from a summer job. However, it wasn't a play computer but actually a personal computer. It didn't come ready to turn on. You had to open it up. So there was always some screwdriver or knife lying next to it."

ff-rock1 smallFranchetti, a tiny tinkerer back then, developed his curiosity into a career, all the while keeping up with his passion for playing the guitar. He played as a boy during campfire sing-alongs, took a hiatus in middle school, and then belonged to a band that had its beginnings in his high school years. "At first it just started as a local thing where we would ask to play at a pub. In exchange maybe we would get $20 and a free drink, as long as we were packed up before the bar closed," said Franchetti. "And then we went on to playing in local festivals. I liked being on stage, but I'm more of a theoretical musician than a gut feeling musician."

Franchetti attended the Vienna University of Technology and received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in mathematical computer sciences and computational mathematics. In 2004 he came from Austria to Carnegie Mellon with an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship for his research on Advanced Code Generation in Digital Signal Processing – the influence for this work literally came through the sound of his guitar. "It was a nice topic for me because then I could find out how my electric guitar actually worked. In the electric guitar effects units there are little computers that transform the notes into frequencies and this is how I learned how the signal processes function," said Franchetti, who had formal lessons in electric guitar throughout his master's program. This formalized music theory training may have given Franchetti a distinct edge when it came to the DARPA project where formalized code plays a crucial role in achieving the project's objectives.

Securing Systems with Secured Systems

Franchetti's project comes out of DARPA's High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) program, which was launched last year in their Information Innovation Office. The goal of the HACMS program is to create technology built with higher-functioning safety and security properties to address vulnerabilities in network and embedded systems. These systems include hardware used everyday like printers, routers, cell phones, and GPS devices. "It is theoretically possible that your GPS software could be hacked and lead you somewhere you don't want to go," said Franchetti. "Or an unmanned vehicle could be hacked and do something that it's not supposed to do. But software can be further developed to prevent these attacks."

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A 2010 New York Times article reported that "even basic vehicles have at least 30 of these microprocessor-controlled devices, known as electronic control units, and some luxury cars have as many as 100." These microprocessor-controlled devices and sensors include climate control, power windows, engine system, automatic transmission, and anti-lock brakes. In military systems, this would include drones, or unmanned aerial, ground, or underwater vehicles, as well as weapons systems, satellites, and remote-controlled devices. This generates increasing concern about the military security that aims to prevent drones from succumbing to cyber attacks that might alter their intended targets or, with their sensors, pick up hazardous data.

For Franchetti and his team, the core of the work focuses on creating a formalized method of creating the programming codes that are generated automatically or semiautomatically for these systems. With formalized algorithms, his team aims to create proofs that these codes meet certain security standards that will provide the basis for more fortified systems. "In order to attack the problem that DARPA has given us – to secure cars and robots that have increased computer technology – we need systems that can recognize when they are being attacked," said Franchetti. "Then, if you can adapt the response the computer through verified software, we can come to a means of developing systems that are secure by their nature."

This project is a culmination of careful planning and recruiting over several years. As he pointed out, it is not he alone who should take the credit for this grant, but rather an interdisciplinary team of researchers in robotics, signal processing, symbolic math, and other backgrounds that will aid in meeting DARPA's challenge. If the challenge is met, the output can be commercialized by private companies or for military use.

ff-rock4 smallAnd the beat goes on ...

Franchetti is working on another DARPA project, supported by grants of $5 million over 5 years, for the program known as PERFECT: Power Efficiency Revolution for Embedded Computing Technologies. Many deployed military information systems have constrained computational capability due to limited electrical power available on platforms, cooling challenges, and size and weight limitations. These place restrictions on the amount of information that can be processed in real time, resulting in the possibility that valuable real-time information is not delivered in a timely manner. PERFECT's goal is to increase the current embedded processing systems' power efficiency from 1 giga floating point operations per second per watt (GFLOPS/w) to 75 GFLOPS/w. This 75 GLOPS/w is what the military anticipates requiring in the future for power efficiency and for meeting the challenge to speed up delivery of real-time information.

With Franchetti receiving these major grants, he'll be in the States for awhile, but he doesn't mind. He likes the convenience of simply walking across campus and picking the brain of a cosmology researcher about computations on a super computer simulating millions of atoms to figure out the melting point – just one example of water cooler conversation.

Though Franchetti admits to the initial disorientation and adjustments that many newcomers have to make when they first arrive in the US, he says these experiences all gave him his "street cred" – academic street cred – a necessary international experience credential showing that you can adapt and figure out how things work. However, every now and then he thinks that maybe one day he will reunite with his old band in Austria for another round.

"Playing the electric guitar is my outlet. And maybe in 10 or 20 years when the kids are out of school, maybe me and the old guys – having mellowed out by then – will get back together and go to a bar and do it again."


This article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Juliet M. Beverly, with Franz Franchetti, associate research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.


Motavalli, J. "The Dozens of Computers That Make Modern Cars Go (and Stop)." The New York Times. February 4, 2010.  (accessed May 6, 2013).


DARPA. Information Innovation Office. "High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS)." (accessed March 7, 2013).

DARPA. Microsystems Technology Office. "Power Efficiency Revolution for Embedded Computing Technologies (PERFECT)." (accessed March 7, 2013).

Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon News. "Press Release: Carnegie Mellon's Franz Franchetti Receives Defense Department Funding To Develop Safer Software Technologies." February 27, 2013.(accessed March 7, 2013).