The Next Computing Frontier: Geography

Computer scientist Shashi Shekhar offers a manifesto for a new research field.

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Jan 16 2016, 3:30pm

Image: Georgy Golovin/Shutterstock

From the imperfect bulges of Earth's surface to the minute geographies of blood vessels, algorithms are only now beginning to truly understand spaces. Geometry is easy to oversimplify and generalize, especially when it comes to computation, but in our GPS-enabled world, simplifications have big consequences.

This is the argument, anyway, put forth in this month's Communications of the ACM by University of Minnesota computer scientist Shashi Shekhar: Spatial computing is the future and it's time to make it an interdisciplinary research focus.

"In the coming decade, spatial computing promises an array of transformative capabilities," Shekhar writes. "For example, where route finding today is based on shortest travel time or distance, companies are experimenting with eco-routing, finding routes that minimize fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Smart routing that avoids left turns saves delivery company UPS more than three million gallons of fuel annually. Such savings can be multiplied many times over when eco-routing services are available for consumers, as well as fleet owners, including public transportation."

Of course, it's not a new revelation that real-world geometry is warped and weird. What's new is a planet full of devices equipped to measure it properly, from location-aware Internet of Everything devices to billions of phones, tablets, and computers currently in use. Immediate research opportunities include augmented reality, spatial data mining (from traffic statistics to hurricane tracking), "geocollaborative systems," and indoor/underwater/underground GPS, e.g. "indoor localization."

"What scalable algorithms can create navigable maps for indoor space from CAD drawings?," Shekhar wonders. "What about buildings where CAD drawings are not available? How can we perform reliable localization in indoor spaces where GPS signals might be attenuated or denied?"

This is just the start and, naturally, there are a lot of outstanding problems. For example, the familiar question of "how do we serve societal needs (such as tracking infectious disease) while protecting individual geoprivacy?"

Shekhar's manifesto goes much deeper than what's in the video above and it also happens to be open-access. For an opening into a new field of computer science research, it's worth a read.