Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Shape of Information

A brief synopsis of my general-audience talk at Haverford College. 

I'm currently visiting Haverford College at the invitation of +Sorelle Friedler as part of Haverford's big data lecture series. Today's talk was a general audience talk about data mining, titled 'The Shape Of Information': (GDrive link)
The Shape Of Information 
What makes data mining so powerful, and so ubiquitous? How can the same set of techniques identify patients at risk for a rare genetic disorder, consumers most likely to like Beyonce's latest album, or even a new star from an sky survey ?  
The answer starts with an idea Descartes had nearly 500 years ago. He suggested expressing geometry in terms of numbers (coordinates). This turned out to be a powerful technique that led (among other things) to the development of the calculus. Data mining returns the favor. It starts with sets of numbers that describe a collection of objects. To find patterns in these objects, we create a geometry in which the numbers are coordinates. And just like that, objects become shapes, and the search for information becomes a quest for common structure in these shapes. 
In this search, we are not limited by the geometry of our world: we can dream up ever more intricate geometries that capture the shape of the information that we seek to find in our data. In this sense, data mining is the best kind of science fiction come to life: we craft a world out of our imagination, and let the laws of this world lead us to fascinating discoveries about the data that inhabits it.
I had a great time visiting with Sorelle's students in their data mining class. Haverford College continues to impress me with the quality of their undergrads (and their faculty !)

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