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Big Data and Supercomputing is Changing the World

Posted By David Marble, Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I am on my way back from the Quilt winter meetings in beautiful La Jolla CA.  While it was hard to ignore the fact that it was 85 degrees all week while back home was feeling the brunt of snowstorms and record breaking frigid temps, I was far more impacted by our visit to the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at UCSD.  Calit2 is home to some of more compelling applications of high bandwidth research in the world.  Its network, Pacific Wave, is the research backbone enabled by our friends at CENIC and covers the west coast and the international Pacific Rim with a 100Gbps fiber infrastructure connecting many of the major research institutions in the region.  The platform presents an unprecedented research opportunity independent of location and, populated with supercomputing endpoints, enabling a profound new collaboration opportunity. 


Our CENIC hosts provided a program which covered three such examples.  The first was a visit to the “cave” a virtual reality experience at a level of quality I had never experienced.  The resolution was “above 8K” as I visited Florence and went on a tour of the Bapistery, much to the chagrin of my wife who has this on her bucket list.  Gone were the feelings of dizziness and nausea I had experienced with other VR environments.  This was truly a pleasure.


Next we were given an overview by cyber archeologist Tom Levy .  I had never heard of the term cyber archeology nor the term “cultural heritage engineering” but understood immediately the application.  The cyber archeologist uses a suite of digital tools and custom workflow programming involving high resolution laser scanning, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and multispectral imaging to capture and analyze massive amounts of data from historical sites.  They also utilize a fleet of drones and balloons to fly over and into spaces not easily accessible.  Cyber archeologists are racing to digitally archive the world’s most important historic treasures, many of which as we know from recent headlines from Palmyra, are threatened by destructive actions of militant forces.  The amount of data pouring from these sites is staggering.


Lastly and most impressive was a discussion by Dr. Larry Smarr, founder of Calit2 and resident guru.  Dr. Smarr is an astrophysicist turned data analytics scientist and enthusiast.  It was a timely event for him and us as the world awakened the next day to the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves, an area of specific work by Dr. Smarr over the last 20 years.  Larry’s talk however, was not about physics but about the emerging world of microbiomes.  Turns out he has been categorizing the behavior of the microbial environment in his own body for the last 15 years.  This massive data collection technique of his microbial ecology requires high resolution genome sequencing feeding Big Data parallel supercomputers led to the discovery of his having Crohn’s disease long before traditional medicine ever would have.  Since that discovery, he has tracked the progression of the disease and the effects of attempted pharmaceutical combat in a way that will ultimately be the way we look at the body and medicine in general in the future.  The link I provide here is a TEDtalk he gave in 2013 which gives you an overview of his work but know that he continues to make groundbreaking discoveries with this research as recent as the day before we met.  Larry believes that the evolution of the FitBit or like personal health devices in combination with non-invasive testing and web-based applications will transform the world’s health care practice from the reactionary sick care system it is today to a data-centric, preventative system tomorrow.

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