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Fall 2013  No.24
Connections to the Future
Prof Vincent Kin Nang Lau's cutting-edge research on wireless communication and related technologies is helping to reshape the way we communicate with other people and our relationship with machines
A health sensor embedded in your body that is talking to your phone, which is in touch with a health database in order to monitor your condition. The integration of control and communication technology to create intelligent vehicles that can drive themselves as well as talk to each other, enabling smoother traffic flow and eliminating the need for traffic lights. This is the potential world of fifth-generation wireless systems that innovative academics such as Prof Vincent Kin Nang Lau, Electronic and Computer Engineering, are helping to drive forward. 
As communication technology moves on from human-to-human interaction (phone calls) and human to machine (emails, downloading videos), such machine-to-machine applications are set to emerge, according to the School of Engineering professor who has contributed to a host of advances in next-generation wireless communication basic research and technologies. 
Ongoing curiosity about the area has led Prof Lau to spend more than 15 years exploring and driving knowledge forward, publishing over 200 papers. "Wireless communication is now a very big field with many components. You can use your mobile phone to watch videos, browse the internet, as well as make calls, requiring many enabling technologies to make this possible and to create low-cost, reliable and high-quality systems. The work I do seeks to address different challenges, including better coverage, expanded capacity, and changing use of mobile phones."
As a believer that discovery often happens by accident rather than design, Prof Lau keenly pursues curiosity-driven research.
Prof Lau's journey into this high-impact field stemmed from an early interest in fixing his toys and machines as a child. It was practical experiences such as these that saw him become an electronic engineering undergraduate rather than follow his other strong interests in physics and math. "I still remember that when I was a Secondary Three student, I was able to repair my brother's company fax machine and how happy this made me feel," he said. 
Two main passions since university days have been communications theory and control theory, which he enjoys for the "beauty" of the concepts behind them. "Communication theory deals with how you deliver information from point to point efficiently, such as wireless communication. Control theory is concerned with how to adjust speed and angle with the precision required to hit a target or launch a spaceship into orbit. These are two different problems but, at an early stage, I felt they were connected at the detailed mathematical level and I've remained very curious about that. Even now I'm always thinking about how these two theories can be related."
Following graduation, Prof Lau worked as a system engineer in the fixed-line network area at Hong Kong Telecom (now PCCW) for three years before heading overseas to fulfill his twin objectives of further study and seeing the world. In 1995, he started a PhD at the University of Cambridge, receiving the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fellowship, Rotaract Scholarship and Croucher Foundation Scholarship during his studies and making it possible for him to go. 
Prof Lau's focus during his doctorate, which he completed in just two years, was wireless communication, a fast-emerging area in the mid-1990s. He followed this with four years at Bell Labs in the US, where he worked on projects for different business units as well as enjoying the freedom to work on his own research interests. “What I think I learned most from Bell was the way to analyze problems and how to carry that analytical mindset to different projects and problems. This meant I was no longer confined to working on problems in one narrow area any more, and inspired me a lot. Now I always encourage my students to work on multiple areas, not just one."
He joined HKUST in 2004 and went on to play a key role in the technology transfer with various companies such as Huawei. Later, he founded Huawei-HKUST Joint Research Laboratory, which supports research and development projects in wireless communications, networks, and new areas. At HKUST, he also has happy memories of working as the technology advisor for a team at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI), helping them to develop Wi-Fi products, and seeing it all spin off to become Altai Technologies, a company that now employs more than 200 engineers and sells its wares around the world. 
As a believer that discovery often happens by accident rather than design, Prof Lau keenly pursues curiosity-driven research to explore original avenues of thought, and sees interdisciplinary learning as a way to spark creativity even if it takes many years to become clear how. He is currently excited that the physics knowledge he gained through attending lectures unrelated to his thesis while at Cambridge now appears to have potential use in his wireless communication work. 
In another link with PhD days, Prof Lau has recently renewed his connection with the Croucher Foundation when he was awarded a prestigious senior research fellowship earlier this year. "When I received the award, I was able to extend my gratitude to the grandchildren of Mr Croucher and I felt very happy about this," Prof Lau said.
With forecasts of 1,000 times more demand by 2020, there are many challenges ahead in terms of capacity and energy efficiency for the wireless world. The intriguing possibilities heralded by machine-to-machine communication also open up fresh technological frontiers. To Prof Lau, such a world offers hope of a better future and a reason to continue looking for infrastructural improvements and advances in resource management. He recalls discussions over upgrading to third-generation wireless systems a decade earlier. “People asked why, as the current technology and applications didn't seem to require it. But the amazing thing is, once you do upgrade, people will always find new applications to use up the capacity. And I'm always optimistic about the use of technology."
Man of Many Parts
BEng (First Class Honors, second in year), University of Hong Kong
PhD, University of Cambridge, on "Variable Rate Adaptive Channel Coding in Mobile Cellular Systems"
IEEE Fellow
Changjiang Chair Professor, Zhejiang University
Director and Founder, Huawei-HKUST Joint Research Laboratory
Theoretical research: stochastic optimization for wireless systems, distributive algorithm design, Markov Decision Process (MDP) and stochastic calculus for delay-aware wireless resource control, robust MIMO/OFDMA/SDMA cross-layer optimization with imperfect and limited channel states, cooperative communications and cognitive radio systems, massive MIMO, compressive sensing with applications to wireless communications, combined control and information theory, combined electromagnetic and information theory, among others
Applied research: 4G LTE, LTE+, 5G cellular networks, next generation Wi-Fi, IEEE 802.22 cognitive radio
Side interests: digital baseband ASIC architecture and RTL design for wireless communications, digital hardware (FPGA/PCB/embedded controller) design and prototyping