Department of Informatics is a unique academic and research unit, which is a part of the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Informatics. What is so unique about it? Since its foundation in 1989, the Department has been creating things which were completely new at our University, outmatching other academic centers, despite all hurdles encountered by those who go off the beaten track. Establishing Informatics at a university is probably the most challenging task: in no other field do companies employ almost all students even before obtaining the Engineer degree, not to mention the MA title. In no other field the disproportions between average earnings at a university and in a company are the disproportions so striking. Many people have thought that only the fools would stay at a university. Developing Informatics studies at Nicolaus Copernicus University has been a constant float against a wild river. However, a number of miracles have occurred…
It is hard to imagine life nowadays without the Internet. Access to information via websites became possible thanks to physicists from CERN in 1991, with the first server in the USA being constructed in December 1992, whereas the server of our department was operational as early as in March 1993! We needed it to conduct the first large European project “Computer-enhanced Education” (a million dollars was a really huge amount of money at that time), coordinated by us and carried out in cooperation with Cambridge, Leeds, Reims, Toulouse, Technical University of Munich and Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics. We coordinated and ran IT classes on the whole university. In the times when computers were a rarity we created 7 computer rooms on 5 Faculties. Making use of a grant from Batory Foundation in 1998–200, we were training doctors in using the Internet in medical practice. In subsequent years, the efforts resulted in creating a unique field of study – “Informatics”, which offered previously unreachable educational opportunities involving elements from various fields of science.
In our research work we have focused on the development of interdisciplinary research programs in the fields which make use of complex methods of Informatics. As early as 25 years ago we were working on neural networks and machine learning, realizing numerous grants related to those issues. Doctoral theses, as well as postdoctoral degrees of Jarosław Meller, Norbert Jankowski, Rafał Adamczak and Krzysztof Grąbczewski concern the topics which have now become the leading direction in the development of Informatics. All big companies, from Apple, Google and Microsoft to Amazon, Facebook, IBM or Siemens, invest in artificial intelligence which is based on machine learning, and especially on neural networks. Włodzisław Duch in 2005–2011 served two terms as the President of European Neural Network Society, and in 2013 the Neural Network Society nominated him to the College of Fellows, which includes only a few people from Europe, and none from Poland.
The Department’s employees and doctoral students have developed a number of innovative algorithms of machine learning and multi-dimensional data visualization, being specialized in data mining methods. As a result of those efforts, and in cooperation with Fujitsu company, the Department has developed a commercial data analysis package called GhostMiner. The license for this program is owned by many universities and commercial companies in the world, including Abbott Laboratories, a bioinformatics company from the USA, which own the greatest number of patents concerning life sciences. GhostMiner and other programs, developed mainly by Norbert Jankowski and Krzysztof Grąbczewski, have received many awards in major international data analysis competitions. One of such achievements was GhostMiner’s 3rd place in NIPS 2003 Feature Selection Challenge. The development of machine learning methods at the Department of Informatics has resulted in emergence of new trends in the field. Our specialty has become meta-learning, which means automatic search for models which best explain data structure.
In 2009 during ICANN conference in Cyprus we organized (thanks to cooperation with professor V. Brusic) the first in the world competition of application of machine learning methods for analysis of immunological data, as well as a similar competition in toxicological data analysis. Professor Duch is also a co-organizer of many academic conferences in related fields of computational intelligence, studies of the brain and cognitive science.
One of the fields which have emerged on the basis of machine learning methods is bioinformatics. Jarosław Meller, having received the doctoral degree at the Department of Informatics, traveled around the world between Toulouse, Kyoto and Jerusalem, in order to finally settle down at Cornell University and later the University of Cincinnati. A work published in Science, which he was a co-author of, was discussed by all science news bulletins. His accomplishment was the creation of a computer model associating the size of tomatoes with genetic changes. It turned out that the gene responsible for that is very similar to one of the genes whose mutations cause cancer in humans. Professor Meller’s group has created a number of computing servers which are very popular among the bioinformaticists worldwide for the purpose of predicting various properties of proteins – virtual protein ZOO. An important role in the development of those servers was played by Rafał Adamczak, who has been the head of Department since 2014. Bioinformatics in Toruń (BIT) conferences, which are one of the oldest Polish conferences related to this field, have been co-organized by our department since 2002.
In the Informatics Section of Scientific Research Committee bulletin from 2000 the Department of Informatics was ranked first, with 12 points, with a 3-point advantage over the second unit; the ranking was based on the evaluations of completed/awarded grants (since that time no such ranking has been made). The list of scientific disciplines in which the Department’s employees have contributed by organizing and taking part in international conferences (from Alaska to New Zealand, from Japan to Hawaii and Singapore) and publishing academic papers in books and specialized journals is really long and can serve as a model of interdisciplinarity. We were among the founding members of Polish Association of Neural Networks (1995), Polish Cognitive Science Association (2002) and Polish Artificial Intelligence Society (2010). Not many university professors made speeches at the Auditorium of AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow. We have conducted several procedures of review and acceptance of doctoral thesis and academic accomplishments at the Institute of Biocybernetics and Biomedical Engineering of the Polish Academy of Sciences, as well as at the Institute of Computer Science of Polish Academy of Sciences and at AGH University of Science and Technology. Computational Physics and computer simulations in quantum chemistry, artificial intelligence, neural networks and machine learning, information studies, data mining, the use of such methods in engineering, medicine and psychometry are only some examples of our activities. In 2007, in cooperation with Computational Medicine Center (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA), we organized a contest involving annotation of medical texts, with 50 teams from all over the world. Neurocognitive approach to analyzing medical texts has been patented together with our American partners. The model of processes related to creativity, intuition, insight processes (“Eureka!”-type discoveries) has allowed for developing Braingene server, which devises new words describing products or websites.
The urge understand the processes responsible for natural intelligence has led us to neurocognitive Informatics, which not only studies simplified models of brain functioning, but uses the results to create cognitive architectures and analysis of data from actual experiments studying brain functioning. Those are issues which are interesting for cognitivists and psychologists, which allow to take a fresh look at the philosophy of brain. The need to experimentally verify computer models served as motivation to found in 2013 Neurocognitive Laboratory in Interdisciplinary Center of Modern Technologies. It is a common research space, in which some employees and doctoral students of the Department of Informatics conduct research in cooperation with the Faculty of Humanities. Physicists, informaticians, mathematicians, representatives of technical sciences who construct electronic equipment, cooperating with psychologists, cognitivists, medics, philosophers and philologists? It is the only academic unit of this type in Poland.
This is, however, a subject for another story…