Some of the brightest computer scientists, mathematicians and analysts spend their days working in a multidisciplinary laboratory environment that focuses on the art and science of analysis, creating solutions to challenges related to big data and the intelligence community.
The Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, located on NC State’s Centennial Campus, was created by NC State’s partnership in 2013 with the National Security Agency.
Michael Bender, the director of LAS, works with government, academic and industry partners to find and implement these innovative solutions.
“We decided to take away the notion of ‘You’re going to work toward a contract,’” Bender said. “Instead, you’re going to work toward an outcome, and that outcome is going to be based on mutual interest.”
In the process of finding solutions to problems, it’s not always possible to completely and fully apply a solution from one area or discipline to another without some alteration in how it is applied, and that is where the collaboration in the lab comes in.
The intelligence of the LAS community alone is not why one would be at LAS, according to Bender. One must be able to express the relevance of a problem to produce a usable solution in the end.
“You want to have something that’s relevant, that’s valuable and is usable to an end customer,” Bender said. “By getting people that come from the different domains, you put the problem on the table. All the people from a variety of different domains — and you don’t have to play mathematician or computer scientist or anything — first it’s like ‘How will we go about solving this problem?’ Then after we do that, then it’s like ‘Hey I have some expertise in this, I have some expertise in that,’ and now you can put it together to be able to actually solve the problem better than you probably would have been able to do before.”
This intersectional collaboration in the lab often produces some of the most unique and innovative solutions from people who are outside of that particular domain since they won’t have the biases that people in that domain may have, such as a ‘We’ve always done it this way’ mentality, according to Bender.
The lab still faces some challenges from working in this kind of immersive, collaborative environment with partners in different domains, but learning how to articulate ideas and concepts outside of an individual’s domain can make communication easier.
“When you realize that they were talking about the same concepts just using different terms, there is an ‘a-ha’ moment of ‘oh, this field that has 30 years of research behind it in communications is actually applicable to a problem domain in machine learning or a problem domain in mathematics or something,’” said Matt Schmidt, big data and analytics solution manager at LAS.
While the lab is sponsored by the NSA, about 80-90 percent of the work is completely unclassified and the remaining 10-20 percent of work discussed is classified, according to Bender. In the beginning, researchers in the lab would focus on what they couldn’t talk about, but now they focus on what can be talked about.
The way the lab is structured in how work flows and how people collaborate is significant to how LAS functions: more like a living organism with the right people rather than a larger organized structure separating individuals by specialty.
Personal resources are likely to be expended in an individual’s own research, and when that person wants to work with someone else on a problem he or she could allocate more resources to that problem, gather some other friends to help or choose to make a mutual pitch to see if there’s some funding available, according to Bender.
“I’m learning, for what we do, it’s better to have the right 20 people than to have 200 people,” Bender said. “Two hundred people get to be very bureaucratic, and there’s a lot of processes that go into it that don’t allow the type of free flow exchange of ideas that we have.”
The immersive side-by-side collaboration, integrated innovation, melding of the art and science of analysis and usable solutions are significant to what makes LAS what it is today and aid in its effort to effectively use and make sense of enormous amounts of data.
“It’s interesting to watch, because it’s almost like the birthing of a new cultural dynamic of how people interact and how they communicate and how they actually collaborate,” Bender said. “They (lab workers) actually get to talk with people that are different than they are and they start to find out there are pretty interesting ideas that people have. Their experiences are very interesting, and when you mix it all together we’ve been able to actually demonstrate some results."