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IBM Is Redesigning Supercomputers to Solve Big Data Problems

Traditional supercomputers focused on performing calculations at blazing speeds have fallen behind when it comes to sifting through huge amounts of “Big Data.” That is why IBM has redesigned the next generation of supercomputers to minimize the need to shuffle data between the memory  that stores the data and the processors that do the computing work. The tech giant recently earned US $325 million in federal contracts to build the world’s most powerful supercomputers for two U.S. government labs by 2017.

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The Hackaday Prize Awarded to Satellite Ground Station Project

First place in the Hackaday Prize was awarded today to “SatNOGS,” a project aiming to spin up a worldwide network of satellite ground stations—hence the project’s name, which is an abbreviation of “Satellite Network Of Ground Stations.” Its creators will receive either one paid ride into space, when such a ticket becomes available, or $196,418 (whose odd numeric value some astute readers may recognize as being a Fibonacci number).

The SatNOGS team edged out four other contenders in the final round of judging. Second place went to ChipWhisperer (a platform for security testing of embedded systems), third to PortableSDR (a compact software-defined radio), fourth to the Open Source Science Tricorder (a gadget for sensing various environmental parameters), and fifth to ramanPi (a Raman spectrometer based on the Raspberry Pi).

The SatNOGS project aims to serve enthusiasts who like to listen in to transmissions from the many satellites zipping around Earth in low or medium orbits. You can’t, of course, do that with a dish bolted to the side of your house. To do this right, you need a radio coupled to a high-gain antenna that can remain pointed in the right direction as the satellite of interest passes overhead.

The open-source design for such a DIY ground station is the main component of the SatNOGS project. But the project also includes facilities so that people from around the world can monitor satellites cooperatively. The idea is that  the ground stations will communicate with a central server on the internet. The server acts like a network manager, sending instructions to the ground stations and receiving digital copies of the signals they record. Assuming enough people build these ground stations, and that they have good geographic distribution, the system should allow much more comprehensive monitoring of satellite signals than anybody working in isolation could manage.

So congratulations to the SatNOGS team. Not that they need my advice, but I’ll give it anyway: Take the money.

How I Stopped Cosmonauts From Carrying Guns

Since the dawn of the Space Age, diplomats and their legal staffs have wrestled with the challenge of constraining the use of space for overtly militaristic purposes, especially as a stage for deploying or actually using weapons.

They made well-paid careers of negotiating and signing “Outer Space Treaties,” despite the lack of generally accepted definitions of  “space” or “weapon,” or even an inkling about  how compliance with any such treaty would be monitored or enforced. Such practical angles were supposedly best left to the engineers to figure out later.

And all the time, various prototype weapons were tested, sometimes deployed, then usually discovered to be useless, and were scrapped. A lot of engineers were well-paid for such careers, too.

For decades, the one exception to this sequence was the little-known Russian practice of packing sidearms on space stations. This continued into the International Space Station partnership, in the form of a “survival gun” in the emergency kit of every Soyuz crew vehicle. Treaty negotiators made sure to grandfather-in such pre-existing weapons—and the Russians were the only ones that had them.

But where the lawyers and diplomats couldn’t get the weapon banned, one pushy space engineer may have done the trick. Without any official declaration from Moscow or Houston, a few years ago the rumor began to spread: “The guns are gone.”

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Rosetta's Comet Probe Has Landed

Update 14 Nov 2014: 16:10 GMT Philae’s drill has been deployed. It’s a race against time now to get as much data out of the lander’s science instruments before battery power is exhausted. The Philae team hopes to get another data update this evening. They’re still discussing ways, such as panel rotation or a hop with the landing gear, to get more solar power to the lander. Stephan Ulamec, the lander manager, says that it’s possible Philae could wake up again as the comet gets closer to the sun. A replay of an update from team members via Google Hangouts can be viewed here

Update 13 Nov 2014: 17:00 GMT Data from Philae suggests the lander bounced twice before coming to rest on the comet. The lander is anchored by neither its harpoons, which failed to fire, nor the ice screws at its feet. Team members are exploring ways to move the lander so that it can get better illumination; Philae is receiving an estimated 90 minutes of sunlight every 12 hours, which is not expected to be enough to sustain the lander after its battery power is exhausted, which could happen in less than two days

Update 12 Nov 2014: 19:50 GMT At a media briefing a few hours after the landing, the team confirmed Philae’s harpoons did not fire and so are not fixing the lander to the comet’s surface. The spacecraft may have moved from its initial landing spot. Another press briefing is slated for 13 Nov at 13:00 GMT.

Journey’s end? After a decade-long trek, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission has performed the first soft landing on the surface of a comet. But it’s not yet clear if the mission’s lander, Philae, is in a secure position

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Elon Musk's SpaceX in Talks on Internet Satellite Swarm

Private spaceflight company SpaceX may be ready to join Google and Facebook in the race to spread Internet access worldwide. The founder of SpaceX, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, has reportedly been in early talks with a former Google executive on a $1-billion project to deploy a huge Internet satellite swarm.

The details of the SpaceX Internet discussions come from several anonymous sources familiar with the project who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. Musk has been talking with Greg Wyler, founder of WorldVu Satellites Ltd., about using a chunk of radio spectrum controlled by WorldVu for the Internet satellite swarm effort. They are said to be looking to launch about 700 satellites that each weigh under 250 pounds—roughly half of the size of the smallest communications satellites currently in use by commercial providers.

Wyler’s talks with Musk and SpaceX come at a time when both Google and Facebook have also been working to expand Internet access across the globe through satellites, drone fleets, and even balloons. Wyler previously joined Google to launch a similar Internet satellite effort through another of his companies, O3b Networks Ltd. But an earlier Wall Street Journal story reported that Wyler departed Google in September and had begun working together with Musk’s SpaceX.

Sources close to the new talks suggest that Wyler had left Google in part because he was unsure whether the company had the requisite manufacturing expertise for the huge satellite swarm effort. Since that time, Wyler and Musk have been talking about building an entirely new factory for manufacturing the Internet satellites.

But time may already be ticking on any possible venture between SpaceX and WorldVu, according to the Wall Street Journal. SpaceX already has its hands full with its current launch responsibilities for NASA’s resupply of the International Space Station and may not have the capacity for the satellite swarm launches until close to 2020. By that time, WorldVu’s window of time during which it has control of the radio spectrum block may be all but shut.

It’s unclear how Wyler’s departure from Google affected the tech giant’s own plans for an Internet satellite swarm. Still, Google has already been moving ahead with its other plans for broadening Internet access worldwide with Project Loon, a ring of solar-powered balloons that could begin delivering Internet service to mobile phone users in the Southern Hemisphere sometime in 2015. Both Google and Facebook have also drawn up plans for using drones as atmospheric satellites to spread Internet access.

Update: Elon Musk confirmed something similar to this project being in the works through his Twitter account on Nov. 10: “SpaceX is still in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations. Announcement in 2 to 3 months.”

Rosetta Lander Readies for First-Ever Comet Touchdown

A decade-long space odyssey has finally brought Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft within reach of its celestial target—Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta aims to become the first space mission ever to deploy a robotic lander to the surface of a comet this week.

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Obama Comes Out Swinging For Net Neutrality

The Obama administration has long praised the principles of net neutrality—the idea that the Internet should have no fast lanes or preferred access for entities that can pay more for it. That praise has long been general, though, with the administration stopping short of really entering the fray. That’s no longer be the case. In a statement this morning, the President came out strongly in favor of net neutrality, and floated specific proposals to ensure it is maintained. Those include regulating consumer broadband Internet access—including mobile access—more like a utility obliged to provide unbiased access to all customers.

In a statement accompanying a brief speech posted online, President Obama said that broadband access should be formally reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, which has long regulated communications services such as phone companies. The President’s statement read, in part:

For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.

The statement also outline a few key principles the President wants to see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enshrine in upcoming rulemaking sessions. These include policies that prevent throttling (the intentional slowing of Internet speeds for some users) and blocking of content by Internet service providers (ISPs). It also asks that ISPs be more transparent abuot how they dole out bandwidth not only to “last mile” consumers but also among content providers. The statement also calls for a ban on paid priority content delivery, which would let content providers pay ISPs to have their content delivered over so-called “fast-lanes.”

Net neutrality advocates like the  Electronic Frontier Foundation have been lobbying for broadband access to be classified under Title II for years. Since an appeals court declared earlier this year that the FCC did not have the authority to enforce its existing net neutrality rules, reclassification under Title II has seemed to many proponents like a necessity.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a blog post today:

...if the FCC is going to craft and enforce clear and limited neutrality rules, it must first do one important thing. The FCC must reverse its 2002 decision to treat broadband as an ‘information service’ rather than a ‘telecommunications service.’

You can hear IEEE Spectrum senior editor Stephen Cass discuss what reclassification would mean—and what it would involve—with John Bergmayer, staff attorney for the open Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, here.

Obama is hardly alone in urging the FCC to adopt stringent rules to ensure open access to the Internet. After inviting the US public to weigh in on the issue a few months ago, the FCC has received more than four million comments on its website, weighted largely in favor of preserving net neutrality. 

Those comments seemed to inform a “hybrid” plan for net neutrality being considered by the FCC, the details of which were leaked to the press a few weeks ago. The plan would have introduced a sort of two-tier classification for broadband access. Traffic moving betwen content providers and ISPs would be tightly regulated, preventing broadband providers from playing favorites, by for example, letting Hulu pay for a faster line of access than Netflix. Last mile service between ISPs and consumers, though, would be less tightly regulated. In a rare show of unity, that plan was widely panned by service providers and net neutrality advocates alike.

According to the FCC, the hybrid plan was only one of several being considered by FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Having those backup plans may be good news for the FCC, considering that the hybrid plan would appear to be at odds with many of the policies the President is now urging. Wheeler, who was appointed to his post by President Obama in 2013, suggested in response that a single statement from the President would not steer FCC policy.

As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding,” Wheeler said in a statement this afternoon. “We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act.”

Rethinking Databases for an Avalanche of Genetic Data

human os iconIn a lab on the ground floor of deCODE Genetics’ building in Reykjavik, Iceland, robots quietly go about chip-typing or “SNP-typing” the latest of 155,000 or so Icelanders. SNPs are single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or small variations in genetic code that can represent the basis for disease or health, presence or absence of a condition of some type or other. A floor up, Illumina HiSeq X machines, worth millions of dollars each, take a few days to come up with a complete human genome. They’ve done so for about 3,600 Icelanders at latest count.

All that sequencing means an enormous amount of data. The As, Ts, Cs, and Gs add up, and of course, the idea here is to actually make use of those letters. Across the building from the sequencing labs, I spoke with Hakon Gudbjartsson, deCODE’s VP for informatics, on the challenges and methods for dealing with mountains of data. Each individual person sequenced accounts for around 100 gigabytes of data, and it’s data, he says, “that requires a lot of organization.”

The primary means to organize the genetic information is a database the company developed that is known as GOR, or genomically ordered relations. Traditional databases, like Oracle or MySQL, organize data in tables that don’t quite make sense for genetic information; Gudbjartsson says using such methods creates bottlenecks when trying to retrieve the data. The GOR database organizes genetic code according to a “reference build,” essentially placing the data in sequential order.

“It’s a database that organizes the downstream data according to the position in the genome,” Gudbjartsson says. All the specific variations observed also fit in based on their physical place. “Whether its a SNP or… a copy number variation, anything. All the tables are basically ordered according to the genome.”

That ordering allows the design of algorithms to query the information in a much more efficient fashion. Researchers can even “stream” the genomic information, instead of calling up one specific spot.

The goal at deCODE (now owned by Amgen) is to take this impressive collection of genetic data and match it up with rich clinical and genealogical data as well. Iceland is home to only 320,000 people or so, and all Icelanders can trace their lineages to 1650, and often further back. Along with good recent medical records, that means the ability to take a genotype and match it up with a phenotype; they have produced some impressive results, perhaps most famously the discovery of a gene in 2012 that confers almost complete protection against development of Alzheimers disease.

This rich data set has created some controversy. Some critics have expressed discomfort with aggressive DNA collection methods (all participants do sign consent forms) and the apparent ability to make “data inferences” based on available data and those rich genealogical and clinical records. (Essentially, even if an individual doesn’t give consent for sequencing, but enough others do, the close genetic connections in Iceland could allow the researchers to fill in the gaps.) However, Gudbjartsson points out that everyone at deCODE signs an agreement to never actually use such inferences.

Gudbjartsson says that GOR can run on several hundred computers simultaneously already. “GOR should be elastic,” he adds, noting that, “we foresee growth.” It is already a challenge to efficiently transpose the full sequencing data from the 3600 or so completed genomes onto the chip data for the 155,000 Icelanders in the database (a way to find common variations, and match with phenotypes). But sequencing will inevitably get even faster and cheaper. The full genome for all Icelanders, or other populations around the world, will present an even greater challenge for data manipulation.

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