Date Posted: 8/23/2021

In Nature Reviews MaterialsCarla Gomes’ research group recently published a commentary on the value of collaboration across disciplines entitled “Computational Sustainability Meets Materials Science." Gomes, the Ronald C. and Antonia V. Nielsen Professor of Computing and Information Science and the director of the Institute for Computational Sustainability at Cornell, said: “The piece highlights the importance of leveraging synergies across seemingly disparate fields, in particular ecology and materials science." The ecological dimension involves bird conservation and the application of materials science. As Gomes emphasizes, the interdisciplinary nature of the work "is so important for research but also to get students excited about what computing and AI can do to make the world a better place."

In the Introduction to the article—coauthored with Daniel Fink from Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, R. Bruce van Dover from Cornell's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and John M. Gregoire from the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at the California Institute of Technology—the research team writes:

Computational sustainability harnesses computing and artificial intelligence for human well-being and the protection of our planet. Materials science is central to many sustainability challenges. Exploiting synergies between computational sustainability and materials science advances both fields, furthering the ultimate goal of establishing a sustainable future.

Humanity’s consumption of Earth’s resources endangers our planet and the livelihood of current and future generations. Our Common Future, the 1987 seminal report by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development led by Gro Brundtland, highlighted the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, and societal issues pertaining to sustainability, and introduced the notion of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” In 2015, as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 193 countries agreed on 17 ambitious goals, referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the conclusion of the article, in a section entitled "Computational Synergies," the team summarizes the promise of a "two-way street" between computational sustainability research and other disciplinines:

The dramatic advances in information and computing technology critically rely on the digital representation of information and the universal computing capabilities of digital devices. Additionally, the generality of computational models enables the transferability of findings across domains. Computational sustainability research is a two-way street: it uses computational thinking and methodologies to address sustainability questions and it also leads to foundational contributions to computing and AI, by exposing computational scientists to new challenging problems and formalisms from other disciplines. The resulting general AI methodologies can then be applied to problems across different fields, as discussed herein for materials science. Examples of cross-cutting computational problems, some discussed above, include: multi-entity prediction for species distributions, land cover, image object detection, and materials properties; pattern demixing for crystal-structure phase mapping, identification of animal calls from audio recordings, and inference of plant phenotypes from hyperspectral data; active learning for scientific experimentation and sensor placement, including citizen science and crowdsourcing; and optimization of sequential decision making for managing (renewable) resources and invasive species and for designing science experiments. Computational synergies can be leveraged for exploring the vast materials space, both in the realm of theory and for planning, designing, executing, and interpreting experiments using autonomous or semi-autonomous systems. At a higher level, there are opportunities for computational synergies to tackle the many other issues concerning materials and their interconnectedness with environmental, economic, societal, and technological aspects, ranging from materials life cycle analysis and supply chain optimization to mechanism and policy design for incentivizing human behaviors for a sustainable future.

Read the complete commentary.

For related research by Carla Gomes see this digest.