Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Chile's space data may give Amazon new artificial intelligence tools

US company and South American country aim to develop cloud computing systems to mine data gathered from observatories
Huge telescopes in the Atacama desert generate vast amounts of data Amazon is hoping to utilise. Reuters

Amazon.com is in talks with Chile to house and mine huge and ever increasing amounts of data generated by the country's giant telescopes, which could prove fertile ground for the company to develop new artificial intelligence tools.

The discussions are aimed at fuelling growth in Amazon's cloud computing business in Latin America and boosting its data processing capabilities.

President Sebastian Pinera's centre-right government, which is seeking to wean Chile's $325 billion economy from reliance on copper mining, announced it plans to pool data from all its telescopes, known as "astrodata" on to a "virtual observatory" stored in the cloud, without giving a time frame. The government talked of the potential for astrodata innovation, but did not give specific details or comment on companies that might host astrodata in the computing cloud.

Amazon executives have been working with the Chilean government for two years about a possible data centre to provide infrastructure for local firms and the government to store information on the cloud, said an official at InvestChile, the government's investment body.

The talks have included discussions about the possibility of Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosting astrodata, astronomer Chris Smith said, based on email exchanges he was part of between AWS and Chilean Economy Ministry officials over the past six months. Mr Smith was at the time mission head of Aura observatory, which manages three of the US federally-funded telescope projects in Chile.

AWS is a fast-growing part of Amazon's overall business. In July it reported second-quarter sales of $6.1bn, up by 49 per cent over the same period a year ago, accounting for 12 per cent of Amazon's overall sales.

Big in the cloud

Jeffrey Kratz, AWS' general manager for public sector for Latin American, Caribbean and Canada, has visited Chile for talks with Mr Pinera. He confirmed the company's interest in astrodata but said Amazon had no announcements to make at present.

"Chile is a very important country for AWS," he said. "We kept being amazed about the incredible work on astronomy and the telescopes, as real proof points on innovation and technology working together."

"The Chilean telescopes can benefit from the cloud by eliminating the heavy lifting of managing IT," Mr Kratz added.

Chile is home to 70 per cent of global astronomy investment, thanks to the cloudless skies above its northern Atacama desert, the driest on earth. Within five years, the South American country will host three of the world's four next-generation, billion-dollar telescopes, according to Mr Smith.


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He and Economy Ministry officials leading the Chilean initiative to store astrodata in the cloud saw potential in more Earth-bound matters.

The particular tools developed for the astrodata project could be applicable to a wide variety of other uses, such as tracking potential shop-lifters, fare-evaders on public transport and endangered animals, Julio Pertuze, a ministry official, said at the event announcing Chile's aim to build a virtual observatory on the cloud.

Mr Smith added that the same technology could also be applied to medicine and banking to spot anomalies in large datasets.

Amazon, whose founder and largest shareholder Jeff Bezos is well known for his interest in space, already provides a cloud platform for the Hubble Telescope's data and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia.

As Amazon explores the potential in Chile's astrodata, tech rival Google, owned by Alphabet, is already a member of Chile's Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will be fully operational in Cerro Pachon in 2022. Google also has a data centre established in the country.

Justin Burr, senior PR associate for AI and machine learning at Google, declined to comment on any Google plans around astrodata or its involvement in other telescope projects.

Separately, a Google spokeswoman said that the company will announce expansion plans for its Chilean data centre on September 12.

Mr Smith said that what the Chileans are calling the Astroinformatics Initiative - to harness the potential of astrodata - could enable AWS access to the research that astronomers are doing on projects like the LSST.

"We are going to have to go through a huge database of billions of stars to find the three stars that an astronomer wants," Mr Smith said, adding that was not too different from searching a database of billions of people to find the right profile for a targeted advertisement.

"So a tool that might get developed in LSST or the astronomical world could be applicable for Amazon in their commercial world."

Since speaking to Reuters, Mr Smith has moved on from his job heading Aura to a new position at the US National Science Foundation.

Amazon's role in the astrodata project would also give it an entry into a market where it is seeking to expand. Amazon - which controls nearly one-third of the global cloud computing business, ahead of rivals Microsoft and Google - has struggled to lure public institutions in Latin America, including research facilities, to store their data online instead of on physical machines.

AWS declined to provide any information on the size of its regional business in Latin America.

"Chile has enormous potential in its pristine skies not only in the observation of the universe but also in the amount of data that observation generates," said Economy Minister Jose Ramon Valente.