In a profoundly optimistic but admonishing report, “Towards 2020 Science,” the Microsoft Research lab of Cambridge, UK, in association with a diverse array of leading scientists, found that advances in computing will transform the way the sciences — especially the life sciences — are conducted, but also cautioned that a radical educational, governmental, and societal accentuation on science will be required to bring this promise to fruition.
Advances in computation will afford greatly more accurate modeling of complex systems such as population epidemic and weather patterns, helping to improve response to real-time outbreaks and avert potential epidemics of avian influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and malaria; as well as make possible much more subtle comprehension of climate change.
Biodiversity, energy consumption, personalized medicine, and social systems are other complex concerns pregnant with promise, according to the 2020 Science Group, the name by which the report authors are collectively known. The Group views the “ability to understand and predict how complex systems produce coherent behavior” as the single most important scientific challenge of the next 15 years.
The report observes how computer science is already enabling new kinds of science through the development of “molecular machines” and the widespread encoding of scientific knowledge, the most widely known early example being the Human Genome Project.
Prof. Stephen Emmott, director of Microsoft’s scientific research programs in Europe and chairman of the 2020 Science Group, said in a statement, “The weight of human existence on the planet has begun to break down the very systems on which we depend, and it is vital that we increase our knowledge of complex physical and biological systems through scientific advances. This report establishes the necessity of applying the cutting edge of computer science to more quickly find solutions to the challenges we are facing.”
One of the most philosophically interesting areas of change is the traditionally human function of formulating and testing scientific hypotheses, which has already become unsustainable in many sciences without the aid of computers because scientists are “no longer able to conceptualize the breadth and depth of the relationships and potential relationships” within and between huge databases now being generated.
A lone biology experiment can easily generate more than a gigabyte of data per day, and deep space data collection in astronomy can generate more than a terabyte of data per night, according to computational biologist Stephen H. Muggleton in a new article inspired by the “2020” report in the journal Nature. Regarding machine-generated hypotheses, he relates a working example of how his research group has “used inductive logic programming (a subdiscipline of machine learning) to discover key molecular substructures within a class of potential cancer-producing agents.”
Using the same techniques, they have “been able to generate experimentally testable claims about the toxic properties of hydrazine from experimental data – in this instance, from analyses of metabolites in rat urine following low doses of the toxin.”
Elementary, my dear Muggleton.
The “2020” report ends with a call to bold measures, stating, “We are in important, exciting, indeed potentially extreme, times in terms of the future of our planet, our society and our economies … governments, scientists and policy makers cannot afford to simply wait and see what happens.”
The report then makes ten recommendations: establish science and science-based innovation at the top of the political agenda; urgently rethink how we educate tomorrow’s scientists; engage the public in science; rethink science funding and science policy structures; create new kinds of research institutes; reenergize computer science to tackle “grand challenges”; develop new conceptual and technological tools; develop innovative public/private partnerships to accelerate science-based innovation; find better mechanisms to create value from intellectual property; and last but not least, the group encourages one and all to “use our findings.”
That last bit is very human.
Microsoft Research Cambridge will further encourage the report’s agenda by making 2.5 million euro available to support new research that specifically addresses the areas outlined within “Towards 2020 Science.”