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Amazon.com In Talks With Chile To Create A Ground For Developing Artificial Intelligence

Amazon's role in the astrodata project would also give it an entry into a market where it is seeking to expand.

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Amazon,com. Flickr, Drones
Amazon to soon deliver packages right in your garage, Flickr

Amazon.com is in talks with Chile to house and mine massive 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 talks, which have been little reported on so far and which were described to Reuters by Chilean officials and an astronomer, are aimed at fueling growth in Amazon.com’s cloud computing business in Latin America and boosting its data processing capabilities.

President Sebastian Pinera’s center-right government, which is seeking to wean Chile’s $325 billion economy from reliance on copper mining, announced last week it plans to pool data from all its telescopes onto a virtual observatory stored in the cloud, without giving a timeframe. The government talked of the potential for astrodata innovation, but did not give details.

The government did not comment on companies that might host astrodata in the computing cloud.

Amazon executives have been holding discussions with the Chilean government for two years about a possible data center to provide infrastructure for local firms and the government to store information on the cloud, an official at InvestChile, the government’s investment body, told Reuters.

For at least some of that time, the talks have included discussion 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 last six months. Smith was at the time mission head of AURA observatory, which manages three of the U.S. federally-funded telescope projects in Chile.

Jeffrey Kratz, AWS’s General Manager for Public Sector for Latin American, Caribbean and Canada, has visited Chile for talks with Pinera. He confirmed the company’s interest in astrodata but said Amazon had no announcements to make at present.

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The logo of Amazon is seen at the company logistics center in Lauwin-Planque, France. VOA

“Chile is a very important country for AWS,” he said in an email to Reuters. “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,” Kratz added.

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

Star-gazing to shoplifting

Chile is home to 70 percent 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 Smith.

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 for a wide variety of other uses, such as tracking potential shoplifters, fare-evaders on public transport and endangered animals, Julio Pertuze, a ministry official, told Reuters at the event announcing Chile’s aim to build a virtual observatory on the cloud.

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.

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A member of the media takes pictures of the parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array) project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama desert, some 1,730 km (1,074 miles) north of Santiago and 5,000 meters above sea level. VOA

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, which will be fully operational in Cerro Pachon in 2022. Google also has a data center 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 last week that the company will announce expansion plans for its Chilean data center on Sept. 12.

Giant database

Smith said that what the Chileans are calling the Astroinformatics Initiative — to harness the potential of astrodata — could enable Amazon Web Services 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,” 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, Smith has moved on from his job heading AURA to a new position at the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Move Over UPS: Amazon Delivery Vans to Hit the Streets. Pixabay

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.

Also Read: Mass Resignations of Catholic Bishops in Chile over Sex Scandal

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

Economy Minister Jose Ramon Valente said at last week’s announcement, “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.” (VOA)

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Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

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Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

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Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)