NSF Opens Door to Information Science Exploration

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As it stands, we're pretty ill informed about the science of information. Information systems have developed so rapidly in recent decades, they've outstripped our ability to understand their behavior.

A team of researchers from colleges around the country, led by Purdue University's Wojciech Szpankowski, aim to change all that. Thanks to a new Science and Technology Center award from the National Science Foundation, they're well on their way.

One of five awarded this year out of 247 submissions, the NSF will grant Szpankowski and his affiliates $25 million to create Indiana's first Science and Technology Center. The team includes representatives from eight institutions, including CSAIL's Madhu Sudan, Nancy Lynch, Scott Aaronson, Peter Shor, and Ronald Rivest.

According to Sudan, the center will seek to broaden our understanding of information science in a world where databases are constantly expanding. "The last 60 years saw information develop from a mathematical theory to a central part of every person's life," Sudan says. "The STC anticipates that the coming decades will see a second wave of developments, as we decode the information determining the behavior of the cell, the brain, the environment and human society—not to mention mundane things like complex computer networks."

Amid a wide variety of specializations from Purdue's other partner institutions, the MIT team brings its expertise in the computation and physics of information. Through their work, Sudan hopes to make our understanding of these systems more concrete. "Information is merely an abstraction. It's useful only to the extent that it models physical behavior, and can be manipulated in physically feasible ways," he explains.

For his part, Sudan is eager to dive into the Center's work. "There is a prevailing commonplace belief that the science of computing is finished and that current-day computers can achieve all we would want to do," he says. "Yet researchers at the forefront of the technology know that we have only explored the tip of the iceberg."

Read the NSF's announcement here.