Alan Turing Institute opens to promote data science

Data science is a tricky field to define. The term was coined over 30 years ago, and incorporates many different disciplines including mathematics, statistics and artificial intelligence. The idea is to make observations and developments based on data – collections of values which can be analysed. The Alan Turing Institute aims to extract knowledge from very large-scale and diverse digital data. If this sounds a little convoluted and vague, then just think of the type of work accomplished by the institute’s namesake.

Alan Turing was born in 1912, and was a true pioneer. In 1936 he invented the Turing Machine, which was an early example of a Central Processing Unit (CPU). Every computer has a CPU, which performs the basic logical operations provided by a computer program. During the second world war, the Germans made use of the now infamous Enigma machine which encoded crucial military information. The settings of the machine were changed daily, which made cracking the code an ever evolving struggle. Data science enables patterns to be spotted in vast quantities of data, and it was Turing who developed a device (the Bombe) which was able to discover some of the daily settings of the the Enigma machines. Whilst Hollywood’s The Imitation Game offered a very simplified version of cracking Enigma, which in fact involved a great many other people and began much earlier, it did portray both Turing’s genius, and the appalling way he was treated by the British Government. The Turing Institute rightly honours his contribution to this rapidly developing field.

The Institute is a collaborative effort between five leading universities: Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, UCL and Warwick, as well as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Each university partner is contributing an eye-watering £5 million to the endeavour, totalling £25 million, in addition to £42 million coming from the UK Government over five years. Its headquarters are at the British Library in London. It is a charity and it aims to provide opportunities, business and promote research for human benefit – for instance by applying their resources to environmental research. It will also be seeking to collaborate with businesses and government bodies.

We now live in a world dominated by computers and computer technology. Yet as a society we have not really caught up with the pace of our own development.  Most people remain computer illiterate and technology does not necessarily best address our society’s needs in a sustainable way. Data science has the potential to transform the way we live. Yet, data collection also has the potential to be intrusive, to destroy privacy and to manipulate people as consumers. The Institute aims to use data science in a transparent way with the intention to serve society rather than control it, as well as seeking to train a future generation of researchers in this field.

An especially exciting endeavour is the plan to utilise ARCHER, the UK’s largest supercomputer, which is housed in the University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility. Supercomputers have enormous capacity to process vast amounts of data, and to perform huge numbers of operations. Therefore access to a supercomputer is incredibly exciting for an Institute based on data science. This work will be happening here at Edinburgh University. The Turing Institute is just now looking for research fellows, and all going well, will be doing so for many years to come.

Image: Antoine Taveneaux

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