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Bettina Speckmann

The Computer's Geometry Teacher

‘Do computers have a sense of spatiality?’, one might ask. That is: are computers aware of their location in space? Are they aware of other objects approaching them? Do computers know when something is near or far away? Without us noticing it, many computers already seem to exhibit such a sense of spatiality. For example, the robotic vacuum cleaner in our living room knows perfectly well when it will collide with some furniture, changing its course in response. Likewise, when playing a videogame, you will not catch your character walking through closed doors and concrete walls. Rather, the computer understands what ‘doors’ and ‘walls’ constitute, making it impossible for the character to pass through. Another example is the automatic collision system of an airplane. To protect the safety of its passengers, it should know when other aircrafts are in its vicinity and notify the pilots of potential ‘intruders’ in due time.
According to Prof.dr. Bettina Speckmann, the spatial awareness of computers should be understood differently from that of human beings: “[humans] have an intuitive sense of spatial structures, computers just ‘see’ zeros and one”. This makes it that 2D- and 3D objects do not come naturally to computers – rather, they have to be programmed into them using geometrical models. As Chair of the Applied Geometric Algorithms Group at the 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 entails “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, splitting up in ‘braided’ networks, or altogether change their trajectory, this can have grave consequences for both human beings and nature. 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. Although more complex than a robotic vacuum cleaner, this project still involves a computer-based sense of spatiality: Bettina and her peers use geometry to represent river networks with mathematical models that can be understood and analysed by the computer.
In light of Bettina’s interest in the ecosystem sciences, one future project that she hopes to initiate is in the field of animal movement. 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 might 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. Between 2010 and 2016, Bettina was a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Global Young Academy. 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. Today, Bettina continues her research at the 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 aforementioned Applied Geometric Algorithms Group at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science - indeed, as the ‘computer’s geometry teacher’. As Bettina puts it herself: “I like my data spatial”.

Bettina Speckmann

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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).