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Commentaries and news: The science of computing and computing of science
The reliance on computers across the sciences has moved through the gears in the last few years. In a Commentary in this week's Nature Stephen Muggleton describes how automated processes are being used to cope with higher and higher volumes of data and poses questions about human limitations in dealing with increasingly complex information.
In the 1990s it took a decade to determine the sequence of a single human genome, but Muggleton argues that before 2050 it will be feasible to determine the complete genome of every human being on earth. Not only will data storage be affected by such developments; both the handling of experiments and the formulation of hypotheses will be increasingly supported by computers. However, Muggleton insists that science is an essentially human activity and there are dangers as well as gains from automation: 'increases in speed and volume of data could lead to decreases in comprehensibility and insight in the results.'
In their Commentary discussing the expontential growth in scientific data Alexandar Szalay and Jim Gray analyse how scientific methods are evolving in response, from the notebooks of Galileo and Darwin to today's huge online databases. They pose the question of whether we are reaching the limits of what one scientist or one lab can expect to achieve in data handling and analysis and what implications this will have on how work will be reviewed and published in the future.
Quantum computing used to be the dream of theorists, too far off to be considered useful in practice. However, reports Philip Ball in a news feature, experts now think a useful computer by 2020 is realistic thanks to impressive advances in the last few years. As a scientific research tool, the quantum computer could be revolutionary: in doing calculations for chemists, molecular biologists and material scientists and shedding light on physics problems that are currently unmanageable with conventional computers.
Another possibility that could revolutionize science are tiny computers monitoring everything everywhere. In a second news feature Declan Butler investigates how data networks could go from being the repositories of science to its starting point. Tiny networks of sensors would constantly sample data and the scientific process, currently about collecting then analysing data would be turned on its head.
In three other Commentaries, noted novelist Vernor Vinge considers the Internet; its growing use as a research tool, and the ways in which online games and virtual worlds are attracting academic research. And how we can prepare for a future that we cannot currently conceive due to the speed with which this world is evolving. Ian Foster reviews the two way relationship between science and computing and Roger Brent and Jehoshuah Bruck ask if concepts from computer science can contribute to greater insight in biological research.
Stephen Muggleton (Imperial College, London, UK)
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Alexandar Szalay (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA)
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Vernor Vinge (San Diego State University, CA, USA)
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