Impact of recent progress in computing on research;
Phase transitions due to Computing:
Douglas S Robertson in his books ‘ The New Renaissance’ (1998) and later ‘Phase Change’ (2003) Drew attention to the fact that advances in computer technology would fundamentally and disruptively transform how research would be done.
In the decade since then, his forecast has been more than validated with rapid developments and especially the recent advances in a Big Data, Cloud Computing, Mobility and the Internet of Things. We are also witnessing the emergence of a new cadre of Data Scientists cutting across existing domains of research. This is driven by the 3Vs : variety, volume and velocity of data.
The greatest impact that this has had is in the democratisation of research explorations, collaborations and liberation from Government funding. Brilliant ideas are no longer hostage to the mediocre bureaucrats in the Ministries, but can find support from completely unexpected stakeholders.
A recent development in the form of crowd-funding allows worldwide support for promising ideas.
It will become an imperative for all modern researchers to know how to program in a variety of tools in order to best handle the large volume of data available. It is said that ” if you torture data enough it will confess”.
When I embarked on my career as a Ph.D. student and full time researcher in Solid State Physics in 1967, my research guide advised me to go and first learn computer programming ( in FORTRAN, the language of the day). And that advice has been the single most important direction not only to my academic life but for my explorations in other domains of knowledge as well. Since then I learnt ( to various levels of proficiency) languages such as BASIC, COBOL, Pascal, LISP, C,C++, Java and its variants and now Python. And that is why I believe that ‘ Computational Thinking’ will become a very important element of the training and toolkit of the researcher of the future. This term was introduced by Jeanette Wing and is continuing in importance with a Centre for Computational Thinking at the Carnegie Mellon University. There is a worldwide movement for every child learning to code right from School itself. Along similar Iines is the movement for ‘ Computer Based Maths’ by Conrad Wolfram and surprisingly it is Estonia that is the first country in the world to adopt this model.
There has been a very rapid increase in the capabilities of machine intelligence, approaching nearer human intelligence with IBM looking at applications of Watson in many domains. Also we are looking at a better understanding of the neural connections in the brain with projects like the SPAUM ( Synaptic Pointer Architecture Unified Network) which consists of 2.3 million spiking neurons whose neural properties, organization, and connectivity match that of the mammalian brain. It can use as input images of handwritten and typed numbers and symbols, and the output is the motion of a 2 degree-of-freedom arm that writes the model’s responses, and is capable of performing 6 tasks ( digit recognition, tracing from
memory, serial working memory, question answering, also providing a reasonably limited semantics that the model addition by counting, and symbolic pattern completion).
With the potential use of 3D printers, and the abundance of small low cost sensors being used in the Internet of things, the instrumentation for laboratories for seeking data would also be completely different. Supercomputing resources from the cloud and local devices such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino would completely alter the look and feel of an experimental set up.
One of the consequences would be that brute force and ugly research will be less appreciated and there will be a pursuit of and appreciation of beauty and aesthetics in research. What a Hardy said for the beauty of Mathematical theory would become important for all research.
Call(s) for action:
So what can we do to create a spirit of enquiry and research among the youth? I have 3 suggestions:
1. Policy and general atmosphere creation:
We need to get the youth to appreciate that while being at School is about following what the books and teachers say and learn what is known, by the end of School one’s critical think and analytical faculties must be awakened. This transition is best done at Senior Secondary level, although for gifted and precocious learners it could be initiated whenever the child shows symptoms of curiosity and questioning the facts or information given. Research is no longer something for Scientists and academics, but is a way of working in all knowledge based occupations. Legal research and market research are examples. Activities labelled ‘citizen science’ are growing and citizen journalism including investigative journalism has been adopted by mainstream media. An attitude to think like a researcher is also the attitude to think like an entrepreneur. The difference being that the researcher gets a thrill and satisfaction by having generated new ideas, the entrepreneur is also interested in making a fortune from these ideas.
2. Designing a program for research orientation from School Leavers, undergraduate, masters and research degrees M.Phil and Ph.D.
With the establishment of the MOOC as a mass delivery model, especially with open ended educational goals, it would be desirable to launch a series of MOOCs aimed at multiple levels. There are many excellent resources already available for free from reputed Institutions. They can be supplemented with informative, inspirational and challenging topics, such as :
1: Research led education: the heart of Russell Group Universities : http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/uploads/Learning-in-a-research-intensive-environment.pdf
2: List of unsolved problems in Mathematics : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unsolved_problems_in_mathematics
3. Open problems in Mathematics and Physics: http://www.openproblems.net
4. Top 10 problems in machine learning
5. Problems in human learning
Much more thought will have to be given, but it is very important to develop such a suite of programs.
3. Suggestions for a mission oriented large research project in the cross-disciplinary area of cognitive research.
The Manhattan Project and Space Mission were very large projects whose spin offs had many beneficial effects. I want to draw attention to creating one such project regarding learning itself. Policy directions in education are often based on anecdotal research and personal views of policy makers. We rarely consider opinions of well known thought leaders, and even less explore education in a systemic method.
For example a set of 10 thought leaders bring to us the following ideas: Burton R Clark ( The Entrepreneurial University), Clayton Christensen ( Personalisation of learning as the Disruption in education), George Siemens ( Connectivism and MOOCs), Guy Claxton ( developing learning power), John Daniel ( massification of quality education), Ken Robinson ( learner uniqueness, creativity and creating the right climate), Ram Takwale ( importance of an always connected learning environment), Richard Feynman ( learning to teach as the real learning), Salman Khan ( flipped teaching, chunking of learning and Analytics), Simon Downes ( with George Siemens on Connectivism and MOOCs).
So the big educational challenge is ” How can we have each learner( recognising his/her uniqueness) to achieve his/her full multi-dimensional potential over a life-span?” and do this for every single learner on the planet.
It cannot be done by expanding an unsatisfactory and failed model of education, but only by a disruptive transformation. It begins with Mathematicians who will define suitable ‘measures’ of learning, a representation model for states of learning, Physicists who will create units and standards and instruments for better and better measurements, Psychologists or Cognitive Scientists who design interventions that result in the desired transitions from states of ignorance to states of knowledge, Statisticians who will build models for these and quality systems to see that 6 sigma is achieved in the learning goals, bio-chemists who will explore the bio-chemical state of the learner that is most conducive to learning, because the activities in the brain are eventually bio-chemical and electrical.
It is challenging, daunting and apparently well nigh impossible. But we did search for the positron on e upon a time and more recently for the Higgs Boson.
So, isn’t this the most important research project of our times. It is also the solution to terrorism, to wars and the path to peace, economic prosperity and happiness.
Can anything else be of greater importance?