If you’re not a mathematician, the deep math that Dietrich and her team perform sounds utterly foreign–combinatorial auctions, integer programming, conditional logic, and so on. Their whiteboard scribbles at Watson look incomprehensible, like Farsi or Greek (then again, many of the symbols are Greek). But these mysterious equations represent the real world and how it works. When mathematicians “model” a problem, they’re creating a numerical snapshot of a dynamic system and its variables.
Take the forest-fire project Dietrich and the researchers are working on. Extinguishing fast-spreading flames over tens of thousands of acres is an expensive and complicated undertaking. In 2000, a particularly devastating year, the federal government spent more than $1 billion and still lost more then 8 million acres. Its fire planners want to reduce the cost and the damage through better coordination among the five agencies involved.
Armed with seven years of data, IBM’s mathematicians are creating an enormous model that shows how the resources–every firefighter, truck, plane, etc.–have been used in the past, how much each effort cost, and how many acres burned. The algorithms describe the likely costs and results for any number of strategies to combat a given fire. “How many bulldozers and buckets do you keep in Yellowstone Park?” Dietrich asks. “And if you need to move them elsewhere, how much will it cost and how long will it take?” She’s talking fast, describing the unruly variables that math makes sense of. “It’s a nice project. Complicated, huh?”
It is too bad that Brenda is described as a mathematician (which she is) rather than the more specific and accurate “Operations Researcher”.