Alumnus honored for accomplishments in artificial intelligence field
Thursday, Jan 27, 2011
Getting a machine to automatically process knowledge and information — to essentially reason like a human brain — is, computationally, very difficult. But orchestrating this feat on a global Web scale can be a colossal undertaking that can take years of focused work.
|Paea LePendu '96|
Perhaps no one knows the trials and joys of creating “artificial intelligence” better than Paea LePendu, Ph.D ’96. A Whitman alumnus who has dedicated his career to designing and implementing systems to meet this challenge, his innovative work recently took him to Shanghai, China, where he accepted an award at the International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC) — the premier venue for publishing and presenting leading research in the Semantic Web.
A postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University School of Medicine, LePendu is part of a team of seven researchers at the university’s National Center for Biomedical Ontology (NCBO) that released the Resource Index Web search interface, enabling biomedical researchers to search simultaneously over many databases from around the planet. The team’s pioneering work in artificial intelligence for the biomedical community won the ISWC 2010 Open Track challenge, an award that honors applications that "can be used by ordinary people or scientists” and that “make use of the meaning of information on the Web.”
According to LePendu, what makes the team’s system different from things like Google, which also assimilates large amounts of data, is that they also incorporate expert knowledge — which is currently being encoded and gathered by the concerted efforts of biomedical experts around the world — into what they call “ontologies.” An ontology is a formally defined terminology for a particular domain of knowledge. These terminologies are often very specific, defining, for example, such things as commonly identifiable brainwave patterns and their relationships to the scalp surface or underlying brain regions.
Doctors are often overwhelmed by the amount of data that new technologies provide, LePendu said. The goal of the NCBO team and their Resource Index Web is to help the medical community make sense of that data by combining their collective knowledge with actual data being gathered “on the ground” in various, ever-growing repositories.
“Winning this competition tells us that we are on the right track. Our lab focuses on building tools that people desperately need to solve very real healthcare problems that affect us all,” LePendu said. “In other words, people literally want to save their mothers and their sisters from breast cancer — it's really that simple. Unfortunately, the complexity of our most horrific diseases precludes any simple solution, so we need methods that bring our collective knowledge to bear on these problems.”
LePendu is currently adapting these large-scale, integrative techniques for analyzing millions of electronic health records, which many believe will improve the delivery, efficiency and effectiveness of health care. For example, experts estimate that savings due to efficiencies could reach well into the $100 billion range annually.
LePendu, who majored in mathematics at Whitman, gives considerable credit to the college and the Whitman faculty for helping him build the foundation for his life and career. At one point during his undergraduate studies, as his grandfather was dying of cancer, LePendu was feeling withdrawn and, for a brief time, considered dropping out of school to live a “simple life” of fishing in his native Tahiti. Desperate for advice, he turned to Akira “Ron” Takemoto, assistant professor of languages and literatures, Japanese, and president of the Associated Kyoto Program Inc.
“He told me what I really needed to hear. He said, ‘Paea, before you do anything, think about this: do you really believe you can shut out all that you have learned about life and go back to something simple? Would it still be simple the way you remember it? What you need to figure out is how to go forward,’” LePendu said. “Those are the kinds of life-changing lessons that are learned at Whitman and they are powerful gifts. The hard question is — and I think I will continue to struggle with this my whole life — what will we do with the gifts Whitman has given us?”