Purdue awarded $25 million for state's first NSF Science and Technology Center

March 5, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University has been awarded $25 million to create the first National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in Indiana. 

Wojciech Szpankowski

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The new center, The Science of Information Center, will extend classical information theory, which paved the way for the Internet, DVDs and iPods of today, to meet the new challenges posed by the rapid advances in networking, biology and quantum information processing.

"The center brings together world-class scholars from top universities to collectively develop a comprehensive science related to how information is extracted, manipulated and exchanged," said Richard Buckius, Purdue's vice president for research. "The team will attack these problems by rigorous theoretical studies driven by critical real-world problems in domains as diverse as biology, social networks and computer communication networks. The outcomes promise to be transformative, just as development of reliable and affordable digital communication transformed 20th century life."

Wojciech Szpankowski (pronounced "Voi-check Shpan-cow-vski"), Purdue's Saul Rosen Professor of Computer Science who leads the project, said the team hopes to work with industry to eventually develop long-term technological solutions and tools to assist in analysis and modeling for the life sciences, communications, financial transactions and patterns of consumer behavior.

"Classical information theory, with bits and bytes as the measure of information, revolutionized computing and communication," he said. "We are reaching the limits of this foundation and need to extend it. A new theory of information that goes beyond bits and bytes will allow us to harness the knowledge available in the massive amounts of data we've collected but not yet been able to truly tap."

For example, vast amounts of data have been collected about protein networks in cellular biology.

"These databases contain valuable information about how cells work and how diseases develop, but it is impossible to find these needles in the haystack with current computational and analysis methods," Szpankowski said. "We need the next level of computation and data analysis, and that will come from a better understanding of information."

Information theory, established by Claude Shannon in 1948, finds the limits of compressing, reliably storing and communicating data. It led to efficient codes and the ability to transmit information electronically. However, Shannon's theory needs to be extended to take into account the influence of space, time, structure, semantics and context on information, Szpankowski said.

"Information is different from data," he said. "A person is able to look at data and pull more information from it than what is presented on its face. We naturally take context into account and can tell instantly whether the word 'bank' refers to a river, a financial institution or to count on something. We need to enable computers to evaluate information more like a person does."

If data could be represented differently, in a way that includes context and structural relationships, computers could extract important information from mounting data and find hidden, critical relationships of one piece of information to another, he said.

"The theory drives what is possible," Szpankowski said. "It provides ways to calculate what can be done and what cannot be done, and where we should put our efforts for the future. Before we start building a new technology or creating new software, we have to understand the fundamentals."

The Purdue center is one of five new NSF Science and Technology Centers chosen from 247 preliminary proposals. The NSF's Science and Technology Center program supports integrative partnerships that require large-scale, long-term funding to produce research and education of the highest quality, said NSF director Arden L. Bement.

"These five new STCs will involve world-class teams of researchers and educators, integrate learning and discovery in innovative ways, tackle complex problems that require the long-term support afforded by this program, and lead to the development of new technologies with significant impact well into the future," he said.

Purdue is partnering with Bryn Mawr College; Howard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Princeton University; Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, San Diego; and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Co-principal investigators for the project are Madhu Sudan of MIT, Sergio Verdu of Princeton, Andrea Goldsmith of Stanford and Bin Yu of UC Berkeley.

The five-year award will be used to create a science of information hub to allow the research team to collaborate and easily share information. In addition, the hub will serve as a resource for industrial partners, students and the broader community, Szpankowski said.

The team also will establish an undergraduate course in the science of information, where students will have opportunities to interact with top faculty from the partner universities as well as leading private sector scientists, he said.

Writer: Elizabeth Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Source: Wojciech Szpankowski, 765-494-6703, spa@cs.purdue.edu

Related Web site:
Purdue Science of Information Institute