Global commerce and corporate America are in a race to harness the power and meaning of data. Nearly every company in every industry is data-driven. The ones that propel the Arkansas economy are no exception: agriculture, aerospace, manufacturing, retail and logistics.
As big data gets even bigger, the ability to customize solutions to benefit individual organizations becomes an increasingly daunting challenge. The prospect of facing those challenges head-on with better computational tools and more high-end talent motivates Dr. Justin Zhan, member of the ARA Academy of Scholars and Fellows and professor of data science at the University of Arkansas.
His lab and collaborators conduct research on artificial intelligence, machine learning, biomedical informatics and blockchain technologies to discover better ways to use big data to safeguard our health, protect our country and improve everyday lives.
AMP: How is big data and machine learning impacting some of the pillars of our state’s commercial activity, such as agriculture, advanced manufacturing and transportation distribution and logistics?
Dr. Zhan: Traditionally, local industry did not rely heavily on real-time data for decision-making. For a time, many senior executives simply were not aware of the significance of big data on decision-making. Everyone’s data is different, and the knowledge hidden in the data is specific to the company, which makes it critical to develop a customized solution for each company. Today, everyone is aware of the importance of big data and potential impact for their company, but implementation remains challenging.
Can big data and machine learning impact the Arkansas industry? My answer is yes. I think that we need to design, develop and deploy precision data solutions for each type of industry or individual company to maximize the impact.
AMP: Where is Arkansas poised to make the deepest impact in data science? Bioinformatics? Blockchain? Artificial Intelligence? Somewhere new all together?
Dr. Zhan: In Arkansas, the industry-leading companies in agriculture and food, transportation, retail and manufacturing face practical problems, but sometimes need help sifting through the data to see patterns that can translate to solutions.
For instance, the next-generation technologies that we are developing include “blockchain explainable Artificial Intelligence” (BAI). Whereas traditional artificial intelligence/machine learning techniques identify the patterns of big data, which are critical for decision making, they do not explain why one pattern is learned over other patterns. In our new techniques, we are tackling these challenges and explaining the AI patterns learned using next generation blockchain technologies.
AMP: You recently received a $1.25 million grant from the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop novel algorithms to enhance the speed and efficiency of computational software that uses large amounts of streaming data. What will this research mean for the private sector?
Dr. Zhan: Our work overall — and this funding in particular — is building better-performing tools that can do things like find objects, identify materials and detect processes. Take brain imaging, for instance. Our collaborative research will provide more comprehensive and effective ways to measure brain activity, which lead to more precise diagnoses and treatments, saving time and lives. If it can be done with DOD-sized mountains of data, then think what these tools would mean for Arkansas-based companies. And we are very open to working with Arkansas companies!
One particular focus for the DOD project that would be of interest to corporate Arkansas has to do with security. Due to the government’s hyper-strict security protocols, the data is often private and encrypted, and it can’t be disclosed to any third parties. The question is then, how can we still use the power of AI for such stakeholders? Our proposed technologies work directly with the encrypted data and don’t need access to the original, unencrypted information.
AMP: What would you do with more funding? And what difference would that make for Arkansas?
Dr. Zhan: We recently received an $11 million grant from the National Institutes for Health for data-driven metabolism research to improve human health outcomes. With large levels of funding such as this, we can further expand the focus from the technical challenges to include additional stakeholders from system and societal levels. We will bring experts from various domains (data science, computer science, mathematics, social science, economic science and public health) to work on the solutions for a particular problem, such as food safety. This provides a big solution for complex problems that results in outsized gains for all Arkansans.
AMP: How can we attract, retain, and develop talented and diverse people to research roles?
Dr. Zhan: The Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) does amazing work in bringing people like me here and keeping us here. The ARA Scholars program is a large part of the recruitment effort that attracted me to the state.
It’s an opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading companies and researchers. One ongoing opportunity is developing ways to connect researchers with Arkansas companies. We’d like to understand what’s on their mind and see if we can combine our knowledge to create solutions together.
Discovery Economics features the The ARA Academy of Scholars and Fellows, a community of strategic research leaders who strive to maximize the value of discovery and progress in the state. Learn more at ARAlliance.org.