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CURIOSITY SPACES

Alyssa M. Adams, PhD

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About me

Despite the 100 things I’m doing at any given time, I am very causal and laid back. I particularly like being silly and eating lots of food (food = technically edible objects), talking about my 3 ferrets, or thinking about computers made entirely of cardboard. I’ve also convinced myself that I understand what computation is from a theoretical physics perspective…

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What is Your Data and What does it do?

According to this article in The Economist, data is the new oil. At first glance, this sounds like overly fancy investor-luring language meant to make an industry sound cooler than it is. But after some thought, I can’t say I disagree. Data is everywhere in a raw unprocessed format that has very little use. It’s all in different formats, unstandardized, has lots of parts that aren’t useable for particular reasons, and in most cases, really really hard to get and near impossible for anyone to understand. But if you take that raw data and spend time processing it, much like you would in an oil refinery, it suddenly becomes one of the world’s most valuable resource, like plastic or gasoline.

Data “refineries” are popping up everywhere around the world and we are just starting to invent the many flavors of the refinery process. Could you imagine a world where every voter had access to the data its country produces in a way that any voter could understand? How would conversations about The Wall change if everyone had access to immigration and crime data in a format that is clear, understandable, and directly from the source, without any bias? What would happen is people could interact with that data, see how it changes over time, and see how it compares to the last 100 years? As a member of humanity, I can imagine this world and I believe everyone deserves equal access to accurate up-to-date public data. This is what I strive to build every day.

Then what?

As a scientist, I am also interested in understanding the systems that create large amounts of data, particularly human system. Going back to my roots in astrobiology, I am always asking myself these questions:

  • What does it mean for something to be "alive" or have life-like aspects?

  • Is it possible for a newly discovered exoplanet to harbor "mostly-life"?

  • Perhaps life is a specific instance of a generalized phenomenon of complex systems.

  • Does physics “compute” life?

  • How can we find the “program” that physics uses to “compute” life?

Much of my scientific research is motivated by these questions. At the same time, technology is providing us with more data than ever before, specifically data on human activity. Understanding how to process this data in a meaningful, mechanistically-informative way has the potential to reveal more about living systems than ever before. My goal is to develop analytic tools that accurately model complex behaviors seen in human data, beyond machine learning techniques. With every new data set comes a cascade of important discoveries.