The importance of being Data Scientist

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The incredible results of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning in particular, could give the impression that Data Scientist are like magician. Just think of it. Recognising faces of people, translating from one language to another, diagnosing diseases from images, computing which product should be shown for us next to buy and so on from numbers only. Numbers which existed for centuries. What a perfect illusion. But it is only an illusion, as Data Scientist existed as well for centuries. However, there is a difference between the one from today compared to the one from the past: evolution.

The main activity of Data Scientist is to work with information also called data. Records of data are as old as mankind, but only within the 16 century did it include also numeric forms — as numbers started to gain more and more ground developing their own symbols. Numerical data, from a given phenomenon — being an experiment or the counts of sheep sold by week over the year –, was from early on saved in tabular form. Such a way to record data is interlinked with the supposition that information can be extracted from it, that knowledge — in form of functions — is hidden and awaits to be discovered. Collecting data and determining the function best fitting them let scientist to new insight into the law of nature right away: Galileo’s velocity law, Kepler’s planetary law, Newton theory of gravity etc.

Such incredible results where not possible without the data. In the past, one was able to collect data only as a scientist, an academic. In many instances, one needed to perform the experiment by himself. Gathering data was tiresome and very time consuming. No sensor which automatically measures the temperature or humidity, no computer on which all the data are written with the corresponding time stamp and are immediately available to be analysed. No, everything was performed manually: from the collection of the data to the tiresome computation.

More then that. Just think of Michael Faraday and Hermann Hertz and there experiments. Such endeavour where what we will call today an one-man-show. Both of them developed parts of the needed physics and tools, detailed the needed experiment settings, conducting the experiment and collect the data and, finally, computing the results. The same is true for many other experiments of their time. In biology Charles Darwin makes its case regarding evolution from the data collected in his expeditions on board of the Beagle over a period of 5 years, or Gregor Mendel which carry out a study of pea regarding the inherence of traits. In physics Blaise Pascal used the barometer to determine the atmospheric pressure or in chemistry Antoine Lavoisier discovers from many reaction in closed container that the total mass does not change over time. In that age, one person was enough to perform everything and was the reason why the last part, of a data scientist, could not be thought of without the rest. It was inseparable from the rest of the phenomenon.

With the advance of technology, theory and experimental tools was a specialisation gradually inescapable. As the experiments grow more and more complex, the background and condition in which the experiments were performed grow more and more complex. Newton managed to make first observation on light with a simple prism, but observing the line and bands from the light of the sun more than a century and half later by Joseph von Fraunhofer was a different matter. The small improvements over the centuries culminated in experiments like CERN or the Human Genome Project which would be impossible to be carried out by one person alone. Not only was it necessary to assign a different person with special skills for a separate task or subtask, but entire teams. CERN employs today around 17 500 people. Only in such a line of specialisation can one concentrate only on one task alone. Thus, some will have just the knowledge about the theory, some just of the tools of the experiment, other just how to collect the data and, again, some other just how to analyse best the recorded data.

If there is a specialisation regarding every part of the experiment, what makes Data Scientist so special? It is impossible to validate a theory, deciding which market strategy is best without the work of the Data Scientist. It is the reason why one starts today recording data in the first place. Not only the size of the experiment has grown in the past centuries, but also the size of the data. Gauss manage to determine the orbit of Ceres with less than 20 measurements, whereas the new picture about the black hole took 5 petabytes of recorded data. To put this in perspective, 1.5 petabytes corresponds to 33 billion photos or 66.5 years of HD-TV videos. If one includes also the time to eat and sleep, than 5 petabytes would be enough for a life time.

For Faraday and Hertz, and all the other scientist of their time, the goal was to find some relationship in the scarce data they painstakingly recorded. Due to time limitations, no special skills could be developed regarding only the part of analysing data. Not only are Data Scientist better equipped as the scientist of the past in analysing data, but they managed to develop new methods like Deep Learning, which have no mathematical foundation yet in spate of their success. Data Scientist developed over the centuries to the seldom branch of science which bring together what the scientific specialisation was forced to split.

What was impossible to conceive in the 19 century, became more and more a reality at the end of the 20 century and developed to a stand alone discipline at the beginning of the 21 century. Such a development is not only natural, but also the ground for the development of A.I. in general. The mathematical tools needed for such an endeavour where already developed by the half of the 20 century in the period when computing power was scars. Although the mathematical methods were present for everyone, to understand them and learn how to apply them developed quite differently within every individual field in which Machine Learning/A.I. was applied. The way the same method would be applied by a physicist, a chemist, a biologist or an economist would differ so radical, that different words emerged which lead to different langues for similar algorithms. Even today, when Data Science has became a independent branch, two different Data Scientists from different application background could find it difficult to understand each other only from a language point of view. The moment they look at the methods and code the differences will slowly melt away.

Finding a universal language for Data Science is one of the next important steps in the development of A.I. Then it would be possible for a Data Scientist to successfully finish a project in industry, turn to a new one in physics, then biology and returning to industry without much need to learn special new languages in order to be able to perform each tasks. It would be possible to concentrate on that what a Data Scientist does best: find the best algorithm. In other words, a Data Scientist could resolve problems independent of the background the problem was stated.

This is the most important aspect that distinguish the Data Scientist. A mathematician is limited to solve problems in mathematics alone, a physicist is able to solve problems only in physics, a biologist problems only in biology. With a unique language regarding the methods and strategies to solve Machine Learning/A.I. problems, a Data Scientist can solve a problem independent of the field. Specialisation put different branches of science at drift from each other, but it is the evolution of the role of the Data Scientist to synthesize from all of them and find the quintessence in a language which transpire beyond all the field of science. The emerging language of Data Science is a new building block, a new mathematical language of nature.

Although such a perspective does not yet exists, the principal component of Machine Learning/A.I. already have such proprieties partially in form of data. Because predicting for example the numbers of eggs sold by a company or the numbers of patients which developed immune bacteria to a specific antibiotic in all hospital in a country can be performed by the same prediction method. The data do not carry any information about the entities which are being predicted. It does not matter anymore if the data are from Faraday’s experiment, CERN of Human Genome. The same data set and its corresponding prediction could stand literary for anything. Thus, the result of the prediction — what we would call for a human being intuition and/or estimation — would be independent of the domain, the area of knowledge it originated.

It also lies at the very heart of A.I., the dream of researcher to create self acting entities, that is machines with consciousness. This implies that the algorithms must be able to determine which task, model is relevant at a given moment. It would be to cumbersome to have a model for every task and and every field and then try to connect them all in one. The independence of scientific language, like of data, is thus a mandatory step. It also means that developing A.I. is not only connected to develop a new consciousness, but, and most important, to the development of our one.

Valentin Curtef

Dr. Valentin Curtef studied mathematics at the University Babes-Bolyai in Romania, and did his doctorate in physics at TU Dortmund. For more than 6 years he is working as a Data Scientist at MAX-CON DATA SCIENCE GmbH, where he deals with topics of Industry 4.0 and IoT.

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