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The Computer's Geometry Teacher
‘Do computers have a sense of shape?’, one might ask. According to Prof.dr. Bettina Speckmann, computers have no spatial insight, much different from human beings: “[humans] have an intuitive understanding of spatial structures and shapes, computers just ‘see’ zeros and ones”. Hence understanding 2D- and 3D objects does not come naturally to computers – rather, they have to be programmed explicitly to handle them. As Chair of the Applied Geometric Algorithms Group at Eindhoven University of Technology, Bettina happily takes on the role as the ‘computer’s geometry teacher’: “I find it endlessly fascinating to teach computers how to gain a human-like understanding of spatial data”. To this end, her research group focusses on “algorithms research that is concerned with the design and analysis of efficient algorithms and data structures for problems involving geometric objects in 2-, 3- and higher-dimensional space”.
Although algorithms for spatial data are important in many areas of everyday-life, Bettina’s research shows a particular interest in geographic information science. For example, Bettina uses computational tools to better understand the complex behaviour of rivers and estuaries. She points out that, if rivers start flooding or changing their channels, this can have grave consequences for both human beings and the natural environment. Therefore, it is important to develop algorithms that can capture and analyse how rivers and estuaries change over time – to better understand their dynamics, and to anticipate and respond to changing network patterns. Bettina and her peers use tools from computational geometry and topology to represent river networks with mathematical structures that can be understood and analysed by a computer.
Another project that Bettina is currently working on is in the field of behavioural ecology. Algorithms for spatial data, she explains, can also be used to detect and localize poachers. Based on how animals respond to disruptions – captured in large sets of trajectory data – algorithms may not only be able to pinpoint where exactly the poacher is coming from, but also whether we are not just dealing with a natural predator.
In 2011, Bettina won the first Netherlands Prize for ICT Research. She was a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2010-2015) and the Global Young Academy (2011-2016). In addition, Bettina served as programme committee chair for the 42nd International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming – Track A in 2015, and as programme committee co-chair for the 34th International Symposium om Computation Geometry in 2018 and the 24th SIAM Symposium on Algorithm Engineering and Experiments in 2022. Today, Bettina continues her research at Eindhoven University of Technology. Here, she joined as assistant professor in 2003, after which she was promoted to full professor in 2012. Since 2015, Bettina is leading the Applied Geometric Algorithms Group at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science - indeed, as the ‘computer’s geometry teacher’.
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- Full Professor Bettina Speckmann. (n.d.). Eindhoven University of Technology. Retrieved from: https://www.tue.nl/en/research/researchers/bettina-speckmann/ (Accessed 20-03-2022).
Hiatt, M., Sonke, W. M., Addink, E., van Dijk, W., van Kreveld, M. J., Ophelders, T. A. E., Verbeek, K. A. B., Vlaming, J., Speckmann, B., & Kleinhans, M. G. (2020). Geometry and topology of estuary and braided river channel networks automatically extracted from topographic data. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, vol. 125, no. 1, [e2019JF005206]. DOI: 10.1029/2019JF005206.
Kleinhans, M. G., van Kreveld, M. J., Ophelders, T. A. E., Sonke, W. M., Speckmann, B., & Verbeek, K. A. B. (2019). Computing representative networks for braided rivers. Journal of Computational Geometry, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 423-443.DOI: 10.20382/jocg.v10i1a14.
Bettina Speckmann: modellen, kaarten en beweging, meetkundeles voor computers. (2011). FastFacts [online video]. Retrieved from: https://fastfacts.nl/nl/content/bettina-speckmann-modellen-kaarten-en-beweging (Accessed 20-04-2022).
Personal Communication (04-04-2022).
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