Can an algorithm be used for social good? Ricardo Fukasawa has made a career of studying algorithmic optimization, but the work usually centres around improving business efficiency to enhance a company’s bottom line.
Fukasawa, an associate professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo, is working with Ethelo to make the application’s algorithm faster and more efficient—so it can deliver real-time results during consultations.
The Department of Combinatorics and Optimization has a broad research focus that includes algorithms, optimization, quantum computing, and more.
“Most applications of optimization have been in the context of how many dollars can we save or how efficiently can we use this budget,” Fukasawa said. “This project is using optimization to come to decisions that benefit society as a whole.”
Fukasawa is working with Kent Mewhort, Ethelo’s chief technologist and a key creator in the current algorithmic engine. The process currently considers every possible combination of outcomes before calculating a final score, which slows down processing time and creates a less-than-ideal user experience.
Mewhort and Fukasawa hope to optimize the process so that participants can change their votes and see the results of that change in real-time. The collaboration represents a new challenge and the opportunity to integrate academic research with real-life social justice applications.
“Algorithm doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” Mewhort said. “This is a great opportunity to get some academic light shed on this problem.”
The project is still in its early stages, but Fukasawa feels good about the progress being made and the potential for change moving forward.
“My research agenda revolves around choosing optimization problems and trying to solve them as efficiently as possible,” Fukasawa said. “This fits well into that theme and has the potential to be used for other applications in the future.”