To speed up its development and retain its sovereignty, South Africa needs to establish high-performance computing facilities, supported by an expanding network of skills
The field of computing has advanced to the point that we can now directly stimulate the brain, store every piece of music ever produced and conduct intensive analytics on big data with relative ease. Soon, we will even be able to process the genome on a tablet or personal computer. Managing heat and power in computers remains a challenge, largely due to the on-going use of silicon in processors, but research into new materials like graphene is showing promise.
For me, the most important questions facing computing today are intertwined with the future of societies and economies. How can we use big data to address poverty and underdevelopment? How can we use it to advance science in general? And how can we provide a better education for future generations? It is possible to achieve all of this in the not-too-distant future – provided that we begin now.
A WORLD IN TRANSFORMATION
Agriculture and farming
Today, weather is still primarily defined in terms of the four seasons of the year. We are able to predict weather phenomena like El Niño, but certain occurrences, like the tornado that recently caused such destruction in Oklahoma, still take us by surprise. By analysing big data that has been collected over hundreds of years, we are likely to be able to model weather on a granular level, in terms of days and hours, and, on a macro level, to predict weather patterns over a very long period of time. This could help us project crop behaviour and the best times to plough and harvest.
The ways in which we educate our children – through epistemology and pedagogy – haven’t changed much in the past 800 years. These methods seem outdated in an age where we can model the way in which humans acquire knowledge throughout their lives and adapt our teaching methods to match each age. What’s more, high-performance computing enhances our ability to translate, process, store and analyse information. Education needs to adapt to accommodate these new phenomena and equip people of all ages to perform in the world as it is, not as it used to be.
No pill works the same for everyone, simply because we are genetically different. The discovery of genetic testing for disease has the potential to transform medicine as we know it. Once computing and processing power becomes widely available, it is likely that each person will receive medical treatment tailored to his or her particular problem and genetic make-up.
It is common practice for businesses to generate annual or quarterly reports about their financial performance. Many of these businesses have been around for 100 years. That is 100 years of financial data that could be mined for information about financial trends, provided that the data is structured consistently. I sometimes wonder how long it will take a company that produces beer to start measuring its water use over a 50-year period.
Economists use models to understand supply-and-demand patterns. Their samples are based on a ratio of one to a million. National and global gross domestic product calculations provide a way to understand society, but we still struggle to predict economic downturns, unemployment, stock market crashes and other economic developments. This is in part due to our inability to understand, analyse and model the big data at our disposal.
Together, high-performance computing and big-data analytics have the potential to help us solve problems relating to economics, agriculture and food shortages, health, education and human behaviour more accurately than ever before. The foundation for such research has already been built. What we need to do is bring high-performance computing and big-data analytics tools to the people, and to integrate this new area of research into every aspect of society.
THE EMPLOYER OF THE FUTURE
The amount of information on the Internet is increasing. Today we talk about exabytes ( 1018 bytes ; a unit of information equal to one quintillion) of data being processed every day. Tomorrow, big data is likely to be one of the largest industries in the world. In the same way you have artisans, technicians, engineers and scientists in the field of engineering, big data will employ people according to their levels of theoretical training, research and practical mentorship.
The basic fabric of computing is also changing. Current research into quantum computing looks set to change the way computers process and store information. Advances in materials science will probably result in new materials being used to build computers. These advances are creating new and growing subsectors within computing, subsectors that will need to be staffed by a uniquely skilled pool of people.
LOCAL, DISTRIBUTED SUPER-COMPUTING
Big data is the oil of the future. Its effect on the economy – in every sector and in every geographical area – is likely to be substantial. I believe that super-computing and high-performance computing should be deployed in every province and used to model and simulate local economic and social activities. This will help build the analytical and high-performance computing capacity that South Africa will need to thrive in an increasingly technological age.
Establishing a super-computing facility in each province is likely to be a long-term project, spanning at least 12 years and starting with the establishment of a super-computing council consisting of representatives from the provinces and major data producers from both the public and private sectors. These representatives would have to possess a deep understanding of high-performance computing and big data, and how the latter can be used to advance society’s needs. The council would guide policy on how to use this infrastructure, help provinces train candidates in high-performance computing and big data analysis, coordinate the process whereby provinces would bid to have a super-computer facility installed, and publish a monthly journal on high-performance computing to ensure continuous skills development in this rapidly evolving field.
A NECESSARY UTILITY
Like electricity and roads, computing is becoming a utility that will function as the lifeblood of future economies. Any nation without this utility – and the skills to use it – will struggle to plan for the future and protect its sovereignty.
The Internet of things is real. In the near future, everything – from household products to manufactured goods to the government – will be connected to everything else and to the Internet. This connectedness is what drives big data, and big data will soon drive the world’s economies and governments.
This is why South Africa needs to establish high-performance computing facilities, supported by a solid foundation of big data skills and knowledge: so that we can own our data. Without these basic building blocks, our nation will struggle to maintain its independence. Imagine a country whose entire email infrastructure is run by another. Imagine a nation whose population, financial, economic and health data resides overseas. Imagine a nation that is not in control of its own banking, electricity or water systems. These activities and services are of strategic importance to any country. Now imagine that nation trying to affirm its independence against one of the countries that has control over these things.
Being able to manage its own big data resources not only enables a country to preserve its independence, but also helps it attract investment, plan its economy and protect its people. The Internet of tomorrow is likely to be a platform of conflict. When every machine has an online address, this will create conflict between those who control addresses and those who use them. Data hosted in a country is subject to the laws of that country. The laws of the country of origin – the people whose information it is – do not apply, and an international treaty over big data is a long way off. For instance, if South Africa has a law that applies to the confidentiality of health information but the country hosting the information has no such law, then there is little to prevent the hosting company from selling that health information.
Big data analytics is just as important for the region and Africa as it is for South Africa’s nine provinces. In light of this, I believe that regional and continental high-performance computing councils should also be formed to guide the Southern African Development Community and the continent in creating a grid of African high-performance computing. This will enable Africa to store, analyse and structure its own big data – on its own soil. If we start planning towards this goal now, we will be able to start this in 2020, for completion by 2045. It is an achievable goal, and one that we cannot afford to ignore.
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