10/29/2004 07:00:00

Caltech Launches New Information Initiative

PASADENA, Calif. — Information is everywhere. Most of us think about it in terms of mere facts--facts gleaned from a teacher or a colleague, from the media, or words from a textbook or the Internet.

But there are other, near-infinite types of information--the instructions encoded in our genome that tell our cells when to divide and when to die, or the daily flow of data into the stock market that somehow motivates people to buy and sell.

Information constantly streams to scientists from around the world, and from other "worlds" as well, thanks to sensors and actuators in the sea or out in space.

What's needed is a way to harness and understand all of this data so that scientists and engineers can continue to unravel the secrets of nature and the human institutions in which we operate. In an unprecedented effort, the California Institute of Technology has launched a university-wide initiative called Information Science and Technology (IST)--drawing back the curtain on the nature of information itself and redefining the way we approach, understand, and use science and engineering. IST will cut across disciplines, eventually involving over 25 percent of all faculty and nearly 35 percent of students on campus, likely altering the Institute's intellectual and organizational landscape.

Caltech has committed to raising $100 million for IST as part of the Institute's five-year, $1.4 billion capital campaign. Nearly $50 million has been raised in the form of separate grants of $25 million from the Annenberg Foundation and $22.2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation gift will be used to construct the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology--a new building that will be the physical center of IST. The building will join the existing Watson and Moore laboratories in forming a core of buildings linking together IST researchers.

Funding from the Moore Foundation will provide seed money to establish four new interdisciplinary research centers within IST. These new centers will join two that already exist at Caltech, and together the six groups will anchor and organize Caltech's effort to lead the way in this new field.

IST evolved over the last 50 years from an activity that focused on enabling more efficient calculations to a major intellectual theme that spans disciplines in engineering and the sciences. While other universities created schools of computer science (or computer and information science), these are generally related to computer science and software--a limited view of information science and technology. At Caltech, IST serves as a new intellectual framework on which to build information-based research and instructional programs across the academic spectrum.

"To maintain preeminence in science, the U.S. needs new and unified ways of looking at, approaching, and exploiting information in and across the physical, biological, and social sciences, and engineering," says Jehoshua (Shuki) Bruck, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering and the first director of IST. "Caltech is taking a leadership role by creating an Institute-wide initiative in the science and engineering of information. IST will transform the research and educational environment at Caltech and other universities around the world."

In the same way that the printing press heralded the start of the Renaissance, and the study of physics helped to foster the Industrial Revolution, technological advances in computation and communication in the 20th century have set the stage for the Age of Information. Yet, scientific and technological changes are accelerating so fast they are outpacing existing institutions such as schools, media, industry, and government--structures originally designed for the needs of the Industrial Age. "So we need a new intellectual framework to harness these new advances," says Bruck, "in order to provide for a stable and well-educated society that's prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow."

"Some say biology is the science of the 21st century, but information science will provide the unity to all of the sciences," says Caltech president and Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore. "It will be like the physics of the 20th century in which Einstein went beyond the teachings of Newton--which were enough to put people on the moon--and allowed people's minds to reach into the atom or out into the cosmos. Information science, the understanding of what constitutes information, how it is transmitted, encoded, and retrieved, is in the throes of a revolution whose societal repercussions will be enormous. The new Albert Einstein has yet to emerge, but the time is ripe."

Annenberg Foundation Gift The Annenberg gift is the first portion of a $100 million institutional commitment to IST, and is part of the Institute's capital campaign. Now in the design stage, the Annenberg Center is expected to be completed when the campaign ends in 2007.

"I am delighted that the Annenberg Foundation will be a part of this visionary enterprise," said Leonore Annenberg, foundation president and chairman. "As a publisher, broadcaster, diplomat, and philanthropist, Walter Annenberg was known for breaking new ground. Support for this important new initiative surely would have pleased him as much as it honors the work of the foundation."

Founded in 1989 by Walter H. Annenberg, the Annenberg Foundation exists to advance the public well-being through improved communication. As the principal means of achieving its goal, the foundation encourages the development of more effective ways to share ideas and knowledge.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Gift The Moore Foundation gift is part of a $300 million commitment the foundation made to Caltech in 2001.

The four centers funded by the Moore grant are the following: the Center for Biological Circuit Design, which will address how living things store, process, and share information; the Social and Information Sciences Center, which will investigate how social systems, such as markets, political processes, and organizations, efficiently process immense amounts of information and how this understanding can help to improve society; the Center for the Physics of Information, which will examine the physical qualities of information and will design the computers and materials for the next generation of information technology; and the Center for the Mathematics of Information, which will formulate a common understanding and language of information that unifies researchers from different fields.

The Moore Foundation seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It organizes the majority of its grant-making around large-scale initiatives that concentrate on: environmental conservation, science, higher education, and the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Written by Jill Perry