Catalyzing the growth of the Kenya tech community

Power to Mortals

By Joseph
iHub Cluster
  Published 22 Feb 2013
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Never in the history of humanity has man had more power at his hands to influence the world in which he lives.

Man now harnesses tools that were not even imagined a century ago to predict weather, plan and build smart cities 100 years into the future, and solve social-economic problems such as crime and poverty.

How does he do this?

Using supercomputers to crunch mega data, making sense of tiny individual data bits that alone do not make sense, but when collectively explored and analyzed, suddenly form a big map of patterns, trends and new information.

And this – is where the real genius is. Suddenly, we have tool with which we can solve vexing problems, intelligently.

But data, on its own, does not make sense. Someone or something has to get it all together, and crunch it (process it) into meaningful information. Super computers give man the ability to do this.

How?

Say you take one server, add another ten.  Then trick them into thinking they’re one machine, by installing software that controls each of these nodes as one. (Individual computers are known as nodes).  (Like a puppeteer’s strings controlling different parts of the puppet.) And each node has no idea that it is a node of any sort – it thinks it’s a processor – and the OS installed on them sees them as one unit.

This is parallel processing at its simplest – a series of computers doing several tasks as one large unit. Together.

This is comparable to a large ship. One engine alone cannot power the ship. So what they do is split the task of powering that one large ship amongst four engines. The engine doesn’t have to run at full capacity – but if it did, the overall output would be more than one ship with one engine alone. This can be applied to the concept of supercomputing.

“The exciting bit – the meat and potatoes so to speak, is how you use data to discover new things.” For example, if you analyze traffic trends in Kenya, you’d see traffic increases before a big event or before a change of weather. All these unhidden data needs a super computer to go through them very fast, and analyze trends invisible to you. What was once random is now part of a pattern that can be used to print a map to predict phenomena.

“Suddenly, mere mortals now have the power to predict events before they happen, and manage them in real time." Right now, the changes in weather are extreme and it looks as if it is coming from nowhere. But – pull together all the weather data over several decades and the patterns make sense fast.

“As anyone who manages a super computer center will tell you, it is not about the tech – its about what you can do with it… Academia from different fields are in a unique position to take advantage of this. Not in the least because their minds can wield such power. Fields such as medicine, chemistry, economics, statisticians, meteorological departments, police, researchers and…journalists have been given a platform to crunch data.

The limits have been knocked out – and only limitation is your imagination.

Project Blue Brain - simulating the human mind

The initial goal of the project, completed in December 2006,was the simulation of a ratneocortical column, which can be considered the smallest functional unit of theneocortex(the part of the brain thought to be responsible for higher functions such as conscious thought).

“A longer term goal is to build a detailed, functional simulation of the physiological processes in the human brain: "It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years," Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project said in 2009 at theTED conferencein Oxford.[4]In a BBC World Service interview he said: "If we build it correctly it should speak and have an intelligence and behave very much as a human does.”
A section of the brain has a billion neurons just to blink. And this is for a rat. For a human being, this is way more. So you can imagine the sheer power required of the Blue Genesupercomputer to map the human brain .

The good news is – we have one right here in Kenya.

| The iHub Cluster

While we might not be at this level yet, the potential is vast. From traffic analysis – help designers build better and intelligent roads, (The traffic problem is periodic. We all know when peak traffic is, we’re like animals, when something happens and we all run for our cars…) All these behaviors can be predicted and help engineers design better roads.

So at iHub Cluster, here’s how we’re leveraging on the super computer we’ve built, and how we’re engaging different partners to crack some of the socio-economic problems facing the region.

An important aspect of this is partnerships and collaboration – if different institutions could combine muscle and work on large-scale projects, a lot can be achieved.

iHub Cluster for example, is working with the Praxis Group, and Brain Trust Strategies to kick off a Data Blog where analysts and economists work to find correlations and patterns within large sets of data. The findings will all be published on the blog, to create general interest in analytics as a practice and create use cases for the cluster. (Read about this here) If you would like to participate, send an email to cluster@ihub.co.ke

Admittedly, harnessing data will not be the panacea of all socio-economic errs, but – it will go a long way towards better decisions, better planning, better strategy. (Read about the limitations of What Data Can and Cant Do)

Here’s a technical deep dive we put together on the iHub Super Computer. It shows what software the computer is running, how its been put together and how it all works together.

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