QUANTA MAGAZINE

*Anima Anandkumar wants computer scientists to move beyond the matrix, among other challenges.*

Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of computing at the California Institute of Technology and senior director of machine learning research at Nvidia, has a bone to pick with the matrix. Her misgivings are not about the sci-fi movies, but about mathematical matrices — grids of numbers or variables used throughout computer science. While researchers typically use matrices to study the relationships and patterns hiding within large sets of data, these tools are best suited for two-way relationships. Complicated processes like social dynamics, on the other hand, involve higher-order interactions.

Luckily, Anandkumar has long savored such challenges. When she recalls Ugadi, a new year’s festival she celebrated as a child in Mysore (now Mysuru), India, two flavors stand out: jaggery, an unrefined sugar representing life’s sweetness, and neem, bitter blossoms representing life’s setbacks and difficulties. “It’s one of the most bitter things you can think about,” she said.

She’d typically load up on the neem, she said. “I want challenges.”