Advancing the future of the internet by making math more inclusive

A head shot of Brendan Fong atop an illustration of cubes.
Brendan Fong is the CEO of research nonprofit Topos Institute. His MIECO project, AlgebraicJulia, aims to make mathematics more accessible to meet society’s most urgent needs.

More than ever, we need a movement to ensure the internet remains a force for good. The Mozilla Internet Ecosystem (MIECO) program fuels this movement by supporting people who are looking to advance a more human-centered internet. With MIECO, Mozilla is looking to foster a new era of internet innovation that moves away from “fast and breaking things” and into a more purposeful, collaborative effort that includes voices and perspectives from many different companies and organizations.

This week we’re highlighting Brendan Fong, the CEO of research nonprofit Topos Institute and who’s working to make mathematics more accessible to meet society’s most urgent needs.

Mathematics has been instrumental in shaping the modern world, including computers and the internet. But while studying it, Brendan Fong found that the culture of academia encouraged solving hard problems just to solve them and publishing papers to impress others in the field. Brendan has a different vision.

“The goal of mathematics is to have an impact on what we care about as a society,” Brendan said. 

Born in Adelaide, Australia to a Malaysian Chinese family, Brendan’s experience spans wide: He frequently visited Asia, earning a joint undergraduate degree at the National University of Singapore and the Australian National University. Before going to graduate school in Oxford, where he would get his Ph.D. in computer science, he studied with the mathematical physicist John Baez. Baez became one of his Ph.D. advisers and a close collaborator, and he now sits on the advisory council at the Topos Institute, where Brendan is chief executive. 

AlgebraicJulia, Brendan’s project with the MIECO program, aims to create new approaches to scientific computing by bridging the gap between stakeholders in different fields, facilitating structured and formal communication between them. 

AlgebraicJulia can produce easy-to-understand visualizations and predictions by creating models that, for example, can predict the spread of diseases and the impact of human behavior. This feature can help build trust between stakeholders and the public, thereby making the technology sphere more reflective of human values.

As Brendan put it, “The goal is to make [these theories] useful for the general public without individuals having to go through all the technical aspects of mastering them. Instead, we hope to use them to create tools for better communication and cooperation.”

Brendan believes that mathematics has an important role to play in addressing issues such as climate change, and AlgebraicJulia can be a valuable tool for that purpose. By creating a culture where the goal of mathematics is not just to prove theorems but to make a material impact on society, Brendan hopes to create a more inclusive and collaborative field — a sentiment that reflects Mozilla’s mission to ensure that the internet remains open and accessible to all. 

“The core technical ideas that lay the foundation for all of this stuff ultimately come from the practice of mathematics,” Brendan said. “The mathematical culture I want to create is having a goal that’s not just about proving a theorem, but creating a society that’s more caring.”

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