I first heard of al-Khwārizmī in my ninth-grade computer science class at the International School of Vienna (AIS) back in 1993. Dr. Herman Prossinger who taught the course is exactly the kind of person one describes when answering the question: which teacher had the most impact on you while growing up? I wonder how many other 9th graders in the world had the good fortune of being taught computer science by a full-fledged professor with a PhD dissertation entitled “Isothermal Gas spheres in General Relativity Theory” (1976) and numerous peer-reviewed publications in top-tier scientific journals including Nature?
Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was a brilliant mathematician & astronomer who spent his time as a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (possibly the best name of any co-working space in history). “Al-Khwarithmi” was initially transliterated into Latin as Algoritmi. The manuscript above, for example, begins with “DIXIT algorizmi,” meaning “Says al-Khwārizmī.” And thus was born the world Algorithm. But al-Khwārizmī’s fundamental contributions were not limited to the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he is also well praised for his important work on geography and cartography. Published in 833, his Kitāb ṣūrat al-Arḍ (Arabic: كتاب صورة الأرض) or “Book on the Appearance of the Earth” was a revised and corrected version of Ptolemy’s Geography. al-Khwārizmī’s book comprised an impressive list of 2,402 coordinates of cities and other geo-graphical features. The only surviving copy of the book can be found at Strasbourg University. I’m surprised the item has not yet been purchased by Qatar and relocated to Doha.
This brings me to the Qatar (Foundation) Computing Research Institute (QCRI), which was almost called the al-Khwārizmī Computing Research Institute. I joined QCRI exactly two weeks ago as Director of Social Innovation. My first impression? QCRI is Doha’s “House of Whizzkids”. The team is young, dynamic, international and super smart. I’m already working on several exploratory research and development (R&D) projects that could potentially lead to initial prototypes by the end of the year. These have to do with the application of social computing and big data analysis for humanitarian response. So I’ve been in touch with several colleagues at the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to bounce these early ideas off and am thrilled that all responses thus far have been very positive.
My QCRI colleagues and I are also looking into collaborative platforms for “smart microtasking” which may be useful for the Digital Humanitarian Network. In addition, we’re just starting to explore potential solutions for quantifying veracity in social media, a rather non-trivial problem as Dr. Prossinger would often say with a sly smile in relation to NP-hard problems. In terms of partner-ship building, I will be in New York, DC and Boston next month for official meetings with the UN, World Bank and MIT to explore possible collaborations on specific projects. The team in Doha is particularly strong on big data analytics, social computing, data cleaning, machine learning and translation. In fact, most of the whizzkids here come from very impressive track records with Microsoft, Yahoo, Ivy Leagues, etc. So I’m excited by the potential.
The reason I’m not going into specifics vis-a-vis these early R&D efforts is not because I want to be secretive or elusive. Not at all. We’re still refining the ideas ourselves and simply want to manage expectations. There is a very strong and genuine interest within QCRI to contribute meaningfully to the humanitarian technology space. But we’re really just getting started, still hiring left, center and right, and we’ll be in R&D mode for a while. Plus, we don’t want to rush just for the sake of launching a new product. All too often, humanitarian technologies are developed without the benefit (and luxury) of advanced R&D. But if QCRI is going to help shape next-generation humanitarian technology solutions, we should do this in a way that is deliberate, cutting-edge and strategic. That is our comparative advantage.
In sum, the outcome of our R&D efforts may not always lead to a full-fledged prototype, but all the research and findings we carry out will definitely be shared publicly so we can move the field forward. We’re also committed to developing free and open source software as part of our prototyping efforts. Finally, we have no interest in re-inventing the wheel and far prefer working in partnerships than in isolation. So there we go, time to R&D like al-Khwārizmī.