Lead­ing pro­fes­sor has dreams of big-data fu­ture

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By SHARMILA DEVI For China Daily

Guo Yike, one of the world’s lead­ing sci­en­tists in the realm of big data, is not afraid of up­set­ting jour­nal­ists.

“One day, this in­ter­view will be done by a ma­chine,” he said, be­fore of­fer­ing some com­fort. “The­o­ret­i­cally, it’s not im­pos­si­ble and it might hap­pen within five to eight years, but the story it writes might not be as vivid as a jour­nal­ist’s.”

Guo is a found­ing di­rec­tor of Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don’s Data Sci­ence In­sti­tute, which was set up in 2014 with in­vest­ment from, among oth­ers, Chi­nese tele­com com­pany Huawei and Zhe­jiang Univer­sity.

The in­sti­tute fos­ters re­search that com­bines big data with dis­ci­plines in­clud­ing medicine, business and ro­bot­ics.

“My dream is to make a ma­chine that will make pre­dic­tions and get re­sults from data, and turn this into in­tel­li­gence.”

He gives the ex­am­ple of what health­care might look like in the near fu­ture. Pa­tients may still go to see a doc­tor but their di­ag­no­sis would be based on data about their molec­u­lar pro­file and life­style.

“You might see dif­fer­ent doc­tors, de­pend­ing on your con­di­tion, and you would all work with ma­chines,” he said. “You would get your own per­son­al­ized pre­scrip­tion. Oper­a­tions will be done by ro­bots.”

It is a vi­sion that would have seemed im­pos­si­ble to his physi­cian grand­fa­ther. Guo, 54, was born in Shang­hai to sci­en­tist par­ents and stud­ied com­puter sci­ence at Ts­inghua Univer­sity.

“I was part of the first gen­er­a­tion of PhD stu­dents since the ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion’ (1966-76) to go abroad. I came to Im­pe­rial in 1985 and have been here pretty much ever since,” he says. “I was shocked when I first ar­rived in Lon­don, it was very dif­fer­ent from China in those days. My im­pres­sion was it smelt of choco­late, so it was very nice.”

Guo is cheer­ful and open, in con­trast to the pop­u­lar im­age of the in­tense sci­en­tist lost in re­search. The fam­ily in­volve­ment in sci­ence con­tin­ues with his son, who starts med­i­cal stud­ies next year. His daugh­ter works on sus­tain­able devel­op­ment for the fash­ion de­signer Stella McCart­ney.

Guo climbed the aca­demic ranks at Im­pe­rial from post­grad­u­ate stu­dent to pro­fes­sor and he has had Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship for more than 20 years.

“I have al­ways been on the re­search side of academia but I like teach­ing and I still su­per­vise about 20 post-grad­u­ate stu­dents a year,” he said.

He has worked on tech­nol­ogy for sci­en­tific data anal­y­sis since the mid-1990s, fo­cus­ing on data mining, knowl­edge dis­cov­ery and large-scale data man­age­ment. Much of his time is spent over­see­ing the DSI, which con­ducts re­search into top­ics as var­ied as hu­man mi­gra­tion pat­terns in China to how on­line pay­ments can ex­plain so­cial phe­nom­ena.

His roomy of­fice at Im­pe­rial has a photo of him with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, taken when the Chi­nese leader vis­ited the DSI in October 2015. He re­mains con­fi­dent Im­pe­rial will re­tain its global role, af­ter Bri­tain’s vote to leave the EU led to pre­dic­tions of a “brain drain”.

Guo is also dean of Shang­hai Univer­sity’s com­puter sci­ence depart­ment, giv­ing him an­other rea­son to visit home.

“China has made very good progress and is very open-minded,” he said. “There is recog­ni­tion of the need to change the way kids are taught at pri­mary and high school. There is need for more cre­ativ­ity, crit­i­cal think­ing, and think­ing out of the box.”


Guo Yike is one of the world’s lead­ing sci­en­tists in the realm of big data.

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