Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, is on the cover of the new issue of Wired magazine. But the main focus of this piece is not computers, or the Internet, but rather a deadly and crippling disease. The piece somberly notes that Brin seems to have a high genetic predisposition to Parkinson's Disease, which has afflicted everyone from Mao Zedong to Billy Graham to Janet Reno, plus, of course, Michael J. Fox. approximately -- and kills about 100,000 people a year, worldwide. The article's author, Thomas Goetz--who comes across as much more pro-technology than he did in this piece, critiqued here at SMS, just a few months ago--writes sympathetically, even enthusiastically, about Brin's efforts to mobilize computing power to the challenge of curing Parkinson's and other diseases.
Brin has donated some $50 million to Parkinson's research, but his real contribution could be a whole new way of thinking about scientific research:
[Brin's] approach is notable for another reason. This isn’t just another variation on venture philanthropy—the voguish application of business school practices to scientific research. Brin is after a different kind of science altogether. Most Parkinson’s research, like much of medical research, relies on the classic scientific method: hypothesis, analysis, peer review, publication. Brin proposes a different approach, one driven by computational muscle and staggeringly large data sets. It’s a method that draws on his algorithmic sensibility—and Google’s storied faith in computing power—with the aim of accelerating the pace and increasing the potential of scientific research. “Generally the pace of medical research is glacial compared to what I’m used to in the Internet,” Brin says. “We could be looking lots of places and collecting lots of information. And if we see a pattern, that could lead somewhere.”
In other words, Brin is proposing to bypass centuries of scientific epistemology in favor of a more Googley kind of science. He wants to collect data first, then hypothesize, and then find the patterns that lead to answers. And he has the money and the algorithms to do it.
As this chart from the Wired article shows, it appears that such "super-crunching" of data can make a huge difference, by dramatically accelerating--by 90 percent--the process of scientific discovery:
This is the so-called "Fourth Paradigm" of science, based on data-intensive computing. In this reckoning, the first three paradigms, were empirical, analytical, and simulation. But now, thanks to data-crunching, we have a “fourth paradigm.” As described by a famous Microsoft scientist, the late Jim Gray, in this fourth paradigm we would see “A world of scholarly resources—text, databases, and any other associated materials—that were seamlessly navigable and interoperable.”
Microsoft's Craig Mundie sums it up in a book published by MSFT last year, available for free online:
As Jim Gray observed, the first, second, and third paradigms of science— empirical, analytical, and simulation—have successfully carried us to this point in history. Moreover, there is no doubt that if we rely on existing paradigms and tech- nologies, we will continue to make incremental progress. But if we are to achieve dramatic breakthroughs, new approaches will be required. We need to embrace the next, fourth paradigm of science.
Jim’s vision of this paradigm called for a new scientific methodology focused on the power of data-intensive science. Today, that vision is becoming reality. Com- puting technology, with its pervasive connectivity via the Internet, already under- pins almost all scientific study. We are amassing previously unimaginable amounts of data in digital form—data that will help bring about a profound transforma- tion of scientific research and insight. At the same time, computing is on the cusp of a wave of disruptive technological advances—such as multicore architecture, client-plus-cloud computing, natural user interfaces, and quantum computing— that promises to revolutionize scientific discovery.
Of course, a lot of this sounds more than a bit like the founding credo of Google, "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Well, whoever's doing it, and whoever's getting the credit, we all have much to be thankful for. Because of this approach works, we will all benefit.