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Women in Science: Be aware! Computing is everywhere!

computer 300x199 Women in Science: Be aware! Computing is everywhere!

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Maria Grazia Vigliotti is a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Computing, Imperial College London. Her research focuses on the principles of computer science, statistical analysis of complex systems, and security in computer systems. She has uncovered vulnerabilities on the Oyster Card. She is currently working on statistical analysis of information obtained from social networks, such as Twitter, like using statistical analysis of public data to decide who is the most influential contributor. The main focus of Maria’s research is to study the fundamental principles of complex systems and to use these principles to address problems that arise, like security, performance and correctness of computer systems. Maria took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank Centre and spoke to the public about her work and to help promote the role of women in science. www.soapboxscience.org

Maria Grazia Vigliotti is a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Computing, Imperial College London. Her research focuses on the principles of computer science, statistical analysis of complex systems,and security in computer systems. She has uncovered vulnerabilities onthe Oyster Card. She is currently working on statistical analysis of information obtained from social networks, such as Twitter, like using statistical analysis of public data to decide who is the most influential contributor. The main focus of Maria’s research is to study the fundamental principles of complex systems and to use these principles to address problems that arise, like security, performance and correctness of computer systems. Maria took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbankand spoke to the public about her work and to help promote the role of women in science. www.soapboxscience.org

Computing devices are everywhere nowadays. For many of us, life would be unthinkable without a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop. The pace at which technology is developing is rather astonishing and its impact in our modern life is possible only because in the thirties of the last century, a new science was born: computer science.

Despite the huge impact computer science has had in our society via the development of technology, not many people know what computer science really is, and most people would associate computer science with their own experience of technology. For some, computer science is about “programming” or maintenance of computer systems, for others it relates to development of gadgets such as smartphones and tablets.

Computer science is the science of studying what can be “computed”, where the concept of computation emphasises the mechanical aspect of “rigorously following a procedure to obtain a result” which contains only a finite number of steps; such a procedure is called an algorithm. Computer science can be described as the study of problems that can be solved using algorithms.

We do not need computers to compute; in fact, we all compute. For example, the technique of adding two long numbers, or dividing two long numbers, is a form of computation. We follow a set of pre-determined steps precisely to obtain the results. To perform the operation of adding or dividing, we follow an algorithm.

Of course calculation is a form of computation, but not all computation is a form of calculation. For example, the most important element behind Google is the PageRank algorithm, which yields accurate results while searching through millions of documents on the Web.

Computer science, as all other sciences, is composed of important truths. In computing, while people tried to understand what can be computed with algorithms, it was also discovered that that there exists some problems that cannot be computed. That observation established some very serious limits to computation. We have also discovered that certain problems can be computed in principle, but will take too many years for a solution to be computed. Public key cryptography, which guarantees secure private communications over the Internet, is based on the assumption that there are certain problems for which a solution is not feasible in practice. Public key cryptography is used by banks to protect our finances from abuse by criminals.

In my research as computer scientist, I have examined and put new limits to what it is possible to achieve with computation, and I have analysed if algorithms solve the original problem that they were invented for. It might come as a surprise, but sometimes when a human writes an algorithm they do not fully understand what the algorithms computes, and do not always manage to write the exact program they were thinking of. As a consequence, the results of running a program can be occasionally unexpected. The jargon for this kind of behaviour is to say that the algorithm, or the computer program has a “bug”. We all have experienced such bugs, for example when our PC unexpectedly stops working. We get annoyed, and sometimes it could have negative consequences such as losing data, but overall, we can say this has a marginal impact.

It is far more serious when a bug goes unnoticed, and generates wrong data that is taken to be correct. A large amount of effort in computer science has gone towards understanding how to eliminate bugs from computer programs. This is extremely important as computer often are deployed in critical systems such as flying airplanes or controlling nuclear power stations, and no quick human intervention is possible. In these cases, even very small “bugs” could have disastrous consequences.

Technology derived from computer science is ubiquitous in our life, and thankfully scientists work everyday to keep this technology safe.

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