Third Day at Jazoon

Thursday's keynote was given by William O'Mullane from the European Space Agency's Space Astronomy Center in Madrid. His talk, entitled "The Gaia Satellite and Data Processing", covered an interesting mix of science, software development, and experiences gained in their quest to deploy part of the data processing on 1000 Amazon EC2 compute nodes.

The goal of the Gaia mission is use iterative satellite observations, made over several years, to produce essentially a 3D map of our Milky Way galaxy at unprecendented resolution.
The level of precision they are hoping for can be compared to being able to observe a Euro coin in the hand of an astronaut standing on the moon as seen from the Earth. Such precise measurements are not possible from the Earth because of problems such as atmospheric effects on light and thermal effects on telescopes - causing expansion and contraction.

Among the many potential benefits of this project, it is expected that 10,000-20,000 exo-planets will be discovered by 2020 - on average 10 planets per day, and of these maybe 5000 of their orbits. Although these would all be uninhabitable gas giants, finding them would also help with finding nearby earth-sized planets. Gaia will be launched into an L2 orbit, pulled by the earth as it circles the sun. Its 2 telescopes rotating, every 6 hours, will see everything there is to see about 80 times in the 5 year mission. The information gathered on the measured objects include astrometry (sizes), photometry (colors) and radial velocities (movement) with iterative improvements of accuracy in each of these characteristics providing feedback that can improve accuracy of the others.

About 30GB per day of compressed data are expected to be downlinked eventually including information on up to 1 billion stars and other objects. This is expected to eventually lead to about 1/2 Petabyte of data. Among the many science challenges include calibration of an instrument that will be shaken during launch, extrmemly precise time measurement, and accounting for the effects of general relativity on gravity bending light around large planets passing between the telescope and observed objects.

Coding for the project began 10 years ago and must last for another 10 years and feel fortunate that in the struggle over programming languages Java was the ultimate winner. There are currently 400 people from over 20 institutions involved in development and responsibility for data processing is to be distributed among 9 different institutions all over Europe. Collaboration and integration is very important because "a difference in the 15th decimal place in the constant for the speed of light can screw things up". So far everyone has been pleased with Java. In one example, a module that had been left in C for performance was re-written in Java by the original author and showed a 10x improvement. There are minor drawbacks including the fact that long-known IEEE non-compliances were never fixed and that NaNs are not trapped but have to be tested for explicitly. One very positive experience has been porting the system to Amazon's EC2, which took only about 20 person days of effort and required changing only 4 lines of code. They have recently attempted to scale up from 100 to 1000 nodes but have experienced data feed problems and are now investigating whether they lie with Amazon's network or Gaia code.

The final keynote presentation of Jazoon 2010 entitled "Software in the service of handicapped people: Research and Development at Otto Bock" was given by Hans-Willem van Vliet the director of Research and Development. Otto Bock is the worldwide leading provider of prostheses for people handicapped from missing limbs. The company was started in Berlin in 1919 and provided hand-made artificial limbs for World War I amputees. Today the company has 40 different locations, 400 million Euro in turnover, and 4000 employees.

Worldwide there are 10 million amputees. In the USA there are about 200,000 amputees per year and in Europe about 125,000. The main cause for amputees in the rich world is the consequence of diabetes resulting from obesity. There is a larger market for limbs for the lower body than the upper body because mobility is so important. Otto Bock has produced a revolutionary microprocessor controlled knee joint that works remarkably better than the mechanical version that it replaces because it involves less concentrated control during use. This leads to less falls. Falls lead to insecurity, which leads to less mobility, which leads to poorer health. They use the V-model of development because with such devices, long development is expected for a large amount of validation and testing needed for medical devices. There are devices to help for many limbs and many different types of devices ranging from more mechanical and muscle-driven to more electrical and neuro-driven. Just last month they introduced a new product - Germium - offering even more realistic movement even in difficult situations such as climbing up or down stairs. Although this hasn't technically been problematic for amputees, it was the most desired feature because only at stairs and similar situations did other people notice that they are handicapped and this was the last hurdle toward movement that allows amputees to better fit in to everyday environments.

Future plans involve innvation in various areas leading to limbs with a greater number degrees of freedom and more natural control through more sophisticated brain-computer interfaces. In this area, the future looks bright.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010
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