As 2020 was coming to an end, Professor Melike Erol-Kantarci received consecutively three distinctions for her research work in wireless networks and communications. We got a glimpse into the future of technology as we sat down with her to discuss her recent accomplishments, the origin of her passion for computer engineering, and the state of research in wireless networks.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” tells us Dr. Erol-Kantarci, referring to the field of computer engineering, “Frankly, when I was growing up, I always thought I would be an artist”.
With all her success as a researcher, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. Erol-Kantarci could have chosen a completely different career path. She has just received three honours: she was appointed as 2020 Faculty Affiliate for the Vector Faculty Affiliates Program, was named IEEE ComSoc Distinguished Lecturer for 2020-2021, and was awarded the TCGCC Distinguished Service Award (an award she received for the second time, the first time in 2017).
“My mom was a great painter, and my dad was a piano teacher. I tried all the artistic things but I didn’t have much talent,” she tells us. “I turned out to be very good at maths and science though, so I made my way to one of the best schools in Turkey”.
In Istanbul, where she grew up, graduating high school students are automatically enrolled in higher education institutions based on their performance on the national standardized ÖSYM exam. It took until her second year as an undergrad for her to find a subject she really enjoyed, when she took a course on discrete mathematics, which are the foundations of computer science.
“You know, I spent all those years trying to be artistic as a child thinking I didn’t have any talent, '' she says, “but designing algorithms, coming up with new ways of solving a problem… It requires a lot of creativity. You have to be innovative constantly”.
Less than a decade after the obtention of her Ph.D. in Computer Engineering, Dr. Erol-Kantarci, now in Ottawa, received the Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in AI-Enabled Next-Generation Wireless Networks. During that same decade, research in the field of wireless networks had progressed in substantial ways. 2G wireless networks became 3G, then 4G, and now 5G.
“Until 4G, mobile communication was for humans only,” she explains, “Now, we have self-driving cars and power electricity grids using this communication infrastructure. People are also demanding more entertainment technologies such as virtual reality. This is putting increasing demand on 4G, which is why the upgrade was needed”. In Canada, it is expected that 5G will be fully deployed over the next few years.
As for what comes next? Dr. Erol-Kantarci is already doing research work on 6G wireless networks. As crazy as it may sound, 6G could bring to life some of the most futuristic imagined ideas, such as holographic communications and an Internet of Senses.
“Lately, like many others, I have been doing a lot of online shopping. But, imagine if you could actually touch the fabric of the clothes you’re looking at through the screen… Wouldn’t that be great? Those are the kind of innovations that we’re after,” she tells us.
As the title of her Canada Research Chair indicates, since 2018, she has also been integrating AI and machine learning techniques into her research on wireless networks. ”It may sound recent, but things change very quickly in this area. At the time, there were only a few researchers but now it has become the primary focus of many international groups” she says. Since wireless networks are becoming increasingly complex, Dr. Erol-Kantarci is identifying ways to use AI and machine learning to optimize their speed and their connectivity.
The researcher is also working with major tech companies in Canada to bring these technologies to the market.
“In research, we don’t know what the results will be in advance, we don’t know the answers to our questions. It’s mostly curiosity driven. But sometimes the answers to our questions are leading to a product which is a very satisfying part of research,” says Dr. Erol-Kantarci, “Now, with machine learning and AI enabled wireless networks, I see that happening”.