Data-driven futures: UNO conference brings sciences together

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June 6th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Just about every office, school and industry in the developed world uses computers today. They’re everywhere, and they’ve already changed our world significantly. But are we utilizing that technology – and what it can become – to its full potential?

The University of Nebraska Omaha wrapped up a three-day conference Wednesday that brought together some of the brightest minds in computational science together from around the world. KVNO News’ Robyn Wisch sat down with Dr. Hesham Ali, Dean of the College of Information Science and Technology at UNO, and Peter Sloot, founder of the International Conference on Computational Sciences and a professor at the University of Amsterdam.

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SLOOT: It’s about 15 years ago that we started to realize that the world in which we live is so complicated that we might need additional tools to get a better understanding of it. So, if you look at society and how it’s evolving, the amount of things that are going on, it’s for us very difficult to grasp what’s going on and how… look at the economy for instance, it’s very difficult to grasp what’s going on.

Peter Sloot is a Professor of Computational Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. (Courtesy photo)

So the idea we were having was can we use computers to simulate part of the world around us in such a way that we can make sense of the world around us. And that actually triggered the whole idea of setting up a conference to discuss those things.

RW: The conference in its 12th year, and has been held in major cities around the world. Dr. Ali, why did you want to bring it to Omaha?

ALI: We like the concept of connecting computing with other disciplines. We feel like the computational world has advanced so much, you know, computers are everywhere. But there’s still a lack of connecting computing, information technology with other aspects of science and aspects of life in general: the medical domain, agriculture, economics, business, marketing, tele-communications.

RW: What do you mean by that exactly? Computers and technology have become a big part of our everyday lives – they’re in our schools, our offices. How is the potential of that computer technology not being fully utilized?

Dr. Hesham Ali is the Dean of the College of Information Science and Technology at UNO. (Courtesy photo)

SLOOT: The best way to explain these things is always by example. So let me give you one or two examples. A couple of years ago, the European Union asked us a question, if were to spend €1 billion on stopping the HIV epidemics, should we put that money into better medicine or should we put that money into changing behavior?

Now if you think about this for just a few seconds. Medicine: then you need to think about the molecular processes that go on… the immune response to the virus…the replication process, all those things. If you think about the other part, which is changing behavior, you have to understand the social structure, you have to understand the psychology, you have to think of the politics of changing things.

This is a real life problem. And giving an answer to the European Union, we realized the only way to do that is if we can bring all these things together in models and play around with parameters and ask ourselves what would happen if the drugs get slightly better and people feel better, and because of that, they might be moving into more risky behavior, and how would that then affect the whole process of the academics?

So this is an example where computational sciences – not computer sciences – where you really model processes, you model the world around you and do these kind of “what if” scenarios and see what would happen if I do this, what would happen if I do that?

ALI: Let me add something to this, especially when you’re talking about the fact that computers are everywhere. So why are we talking about that it’s not used sort of the best possible way? The medical domain is so rich with ideas. When you go to hospitals for example, there are so many complex instruments and devices. But when you look at computing and information technology and what it’s used the most, you’ll find, believe it or not, that the majority of the usage of computers is in billing and collecting data about patients and their insurance. But not as much is done in terms of patient care. Can we use the advancements in tech to find out what’s the best medicine for the best patient, personalized medicine?

So yes, computers are around us but we are not using them for the most part to really hit home the important problems, the problems that matter.

RW: Peter Sloot is a Professor of Computational Sciences and Complexity Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and the founder of the International Conference on Computational Sciences. Dr. Hesham Ali is the Dean of the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Thank you both for coming in.

SLOOT/ALI: Thank you.

One Response

  1. Patricia Stutzman says:

    A whole new world since i was a child…… the future is bright for so many. Thanks for the great article.

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