News Column

WSU graduate sees big changes coming via supercomputers

August 27, 2014

By William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho

Aug. 27--PULLMAN -- A Washington State University alumnus predicts the integration of "big data" and modern supercomputing technology will transform the world over the next decade, helping to reshape entire industries and yielding remarkable new discoveries.

Peter Ungaro, president and CEO of the Seattle-based Cray Inc. supercomputing firm, presented the inaugural John and Janet Creighton Distinguished Lecture Tuesday. He spoke to about 250 people with a talk on the "Fusion of Supercomputing, Scientific Applications and Big Data."

Ungaro, a 1990 WSU graduate, said the increased use of computers, the Internet and digital technology has led to an explosion of data in recent years.

"More data is generated in a day today than we did four years ago in a year," he said.

That "data tsunami" presents a challenge for businesses and scientific researchers alike, Ungaro said. There's the "needle in a haystack" problem -- where someone needs to sort through massive quantities of information to find the one or two things they really need -- as well as the "connect the dots" problem, where researchers want to integrate data from disparate fields to discover things they didn't know before.

For example, given the huge number of drug studies and medical papers published each year, Ungaro said, cancer researchers have difficulty keeping up with the latest information in their own specialties, much less in related fields.

However, Cray is partnering with the Institute for Systems Biology to help researchers identify new uses for existing drugs by sorting through entire databases of scientific literature. The application lets them ask questions and test multiple hypotheses.

"By using supercomputer technology, they can check a thousand hypotheses in the time it used to take them to test one," he said.

The work quickly led to the identification of an HIV drug that could be used to treat breast cancer.

"It's something they never would have found before because it involved HIV research (rather than cancer research)," Ungaro said. "In six weeks they had a huge breakthrough, and they've made about six more discoveries since. That's a huge advantage. It can take 10 to 20 years to bring a new drug to market, but if you re-purpose an existing drug, it's much shorter, maybe two years."

In an entirely different application, Cray is working with a Major League Baseball team -- "not the (Seattle) Mariners, unfortunately," Ungaro said -- to help match pinch hitters with opposing pitchers more effectively.

Using existing technology, he said, teams can capture 20 pieces of physical data about every Major League pitch, including ball speed, trajectory, angle, location at the batter's box and rotation.

"For every hit, they can collect five pieces of data," Ungaro said.

By analyzing and comparing the data, he said, Cray can generate a list of batters who are most likely to be effective against certain pitchers. Crunching the numbers during a game is prohibited, so the computer generates two lists before each game -- one for right-handed pitchers and another for left-handed pitchers.

"It says if you face this pitcher, here's who you should put in to pinch-hit. We can take that data and try to do 'Moneyball,' version two," he said, referring to the book and 2011 movie about Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who used data analytics to identify undervalued Major League players.

Modern supercomputers can be the size of a basketball court, cost upward of $100 million and perform quadrillions of calculations each second, Ungaro said. They're very different creatures from the enormous "cloud" data storage centers operated by companies like Google and Microsoft. Yet more and more, "we see these worlds colliding."

"At Cray, our vision is to create a fusion between supercomputing and big data ... to build a world-class integrated computing company," he said. "We want to be able to simulate and model the world."

Spence may be contacted at or (208) 791-9168.


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Source: Lewiston Morning Tribune (ID)

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