[email protected] 2015: Tearing Down Barriers In Scientific Research

Turing Award winner Andrew Yao talks to Asian Scientist Magazine about computer science and interdisciplinary research.

AsianScientist (Jan. 22, 2015) – Even as research fields become more and more specialized, interdisciplinary collaborations can provide new insights and even help answer some universal questions, said noted computer scientist Andrew Chi-Chih Yao.

Professor Yao, of Tsinghua University’s Institute for Theoretical Computer Science, was addressing some 300 young researchers at the Global Young Scientists Summit in Singapore, held this year from January 18 to 23.

Organized by the National Research Foundation of Singapore, the annual conference provides an opportunity for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from various scientific backgrounds to network and discuss innovative solutions to global challenges.

Joining a field at its infancy

Computational science is a very young field, at just over half a century old, Yao said in an interview on the sidelines of the summit. Yao himself, who is 68, had started out as a graduate student in physics at Harvard University in the 1960s, before switching to computer science after completing his PhD studies.

“My wife [noted researcher Frances Yao] happened to be a mathematician who got interested in computer science, and I got to know some of the things that computer scientists were doing at that time. Those kinds of problems interested me very much,” he shared with Asian Scientist Magazine.

Yao entered the field about ten years after the first standalone computer science departments were set up.

“All the professors were not computer scientists by training; they had all received their degrees from elsewhere. Initially, researchers worked on things of interest only to computer scientists, such as how to make computers run software faster and better.”

But, he pointed out, many other disciplines such as physics and economics have problems that computation can help solve.

What makes interdisciplinary research special

For a project to be truly interdisciplinary, some natural hallmarks of interdisciplinary work should be met, Yao said. The work should be done jointly by collaborators from two or more different fields; the results should be valuable to both or all fields involved; and the work is best published somewhere beyond the field’s conventional literature, he explained.

For example, Yao has worked on auction theory, where economists design auction mechanisms to encourage higher bids. These include sealed auctions where each bid is submitted independently of the others; second-price auctions where an item goes to the highest bidder at the price of the second-highest bid; or bundling items. Here, computational scientists can help model the effects of these mechanisms on the accepted bid price, he said.

“It turns out that the kinds of questions that economists are interested in are very close to the kinds of frameworks that computational scientists are used to using,” Yao said.

Another interdisciplinary area he has worked on is whether it is possible to make exact copies of atoms and molecules. At the macro scale, it is a simple matter to make a photocopy of an object. At the atomic scale, however, it is a much more difficult endeavor. Yao explained that quantum mechanics forbids exact copies, especially if you don’t know what an atom’s exact quantum state, and that making measurements on an atom inadvertently changes its state.

“If you look at the problem in the right way, it has a very strong relation to some of the questions in computer science, such as computational geometry,” he said.

Yao and his colleagues worked out that if you start with N copies of something in a quantum state, one can theoretically make N^2 copies, but not more. Their research was published in Nature Communications in 2013.

A third area ripe for collaboration is the philosophical question of randomness, which turns out to have very serious and practical implications for cryptography. To be truly secure, digital transmissions must have completely random security keys, but research in 2012 found that a small proportion of so-called randomly-generated numbers are not random. Can we certify that a number is well and truly random, and can we design more secure systems, even one riddled with malware and Trojan horses? Yao asked.

Challenges abound for interdisclipinary research

But interdisciplinary work is not without challenges, Yao admitted. While mathematics or physics may share a similar ‘language’ with computer science, fields such as medicine or biology may take computer scientists some getting used to.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he said. “You have to feel a drive to explore outside your own field.”

And if a university department rewards researchers only for work within their field and does not offer them incentives to collaborate outside their field, few will do so.

Today, though, barriers are coming down. And the benefits to breaking down research-silo walls are clear, particularly for complex scientific problems involving security or the environment, Yao noted.

“We can help solve such complex and critical issues. That certifies that interdisciplinary work is worth doing,” he said.

Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of the Global Young Scientists Summit ([email protected] 2015), taking place from 18-23 January, 2015 at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. [email protected] 2015 is organized by the National Research Foundation of Singapore in collaboration with its partners.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.

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