Sunday, April 18, 2010

Autosci talk at Bar Camp Boston

Yesterday I had fun giving a talk on the automation of science at Bar Camp Boston. I was very fortunate to (A) have very little to say myself, so that I quickly got out of the way for others to discuss, and (B) have some very smart people in the room who got the idea immediately, some of them able to give the scientist's-eye view of this idea.

Discussion centered around a few topics. One was how comprehensive a role would computers play in the entire scientific process. There seemed to be consensus that computers could easily identify statistical patterns in data, could perform symbolic regression in cases of limited complexity and not too many variables, but that in the creation of scientific theories and hypotheses, there are necessary intuitive leaps that a machine can't make. Personally I believe that's true but I imagine that computers might demonstrate an ability to make leaps we can't make as humans, and I have no idea what those leaps would look like because they would be the product of an alien intelligence. If no such leaps occur, at least the collection of tools available to human scientists will hopefully have grown in a useful direction.

Another topic was the willingness of scientists to provide semantic markup for research literature. Only those expert in the field are qualified to provide such markup since it requires an in-depth understanding of the field as a whole, and the paper's reasoning process in particular. It's also likely to be a lot of work, at least initially, and there is as yet no incentive to offer scientists in exchange for such work. The notion of posting papers on some kind of wiki and hoping that semantic markup could be crowd-sourced was quickly dismissed. Crowd-sourcing doesn't work when there is a very precise correct answer and the number of people with that answer is very small.

There has been a lot of Twitter traffic around Bar Camp Boston, and I was able to find a few comments on my talk afterward. It looks like people enjoyed it and found it stimulating and engaging, so that's very cool. It turned out to be a good limbering-up for an immediately following talk on Wolfram Alpha. I found one particularly evocative tweet:
Has anyone approached a CS journal to have their content semantically marked up? #BCBos @BarCampBoston
Thinking about that question, I realized that computer science is the right branch of science to begin this stuff, and that the way to make it most palatable to scientists is to publish papers that demonstrate how to do semantic markup as easily as possible at time of publication (not as a later retrofit), how a scientist can benefit himself or herself by doing that work, and how to do interesting stuff with the markup of papers that have already been published. My quick guess is that some sort of literate programming approach (wiki) is appropriate. So lots to think about.

If you attended my talk, thanks very much for being there. I had a lot of fun, and hope you did too.


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