Leading professor has dreams of big-data future
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.