August 9, 2020

“Google and Amazon make us slaves without having won a war” | Science

The most powerful supercomputer in Spain and fifth in Europe has a unique symbolism in the world. Its headquarters, the Girona Tower, in Barcelona, ​​was the summer mansion of a banker and former mayor of the city in the 19th century. In the XX it became a college of nuns. Currently the palace is owned by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). Although its old chapel still retains stained glass, crosses and neo-Gothic arches, it is no longer a religious temple, but a scientific one.

The MareNostrum IV computer occupies the entire nave of the ancient temple. The machine is surrounded by a glass showcase that dampens its constant hum. Large red and blue pipes conduct the water used to cool this colossus capable of making more than 12,000 billion calculations per second. This computer treasures the largest three-dimensional map that exists in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is capable of creating a complete Earth simulation, reproducing its climate, its evolution, even modeling complex societies and analyzing its possible futures based on climate change, epidemics, wars or international pacts capable of curbing those catastrophes. One of its latest utilities is to read the billions of letters of a person's genome and recommend a specific treatment for your illness

The intellectual father of this machine is the son of two Aragon farmers who had to leave school to work the field. Mateo Valero (Alfamén, 1952) stood out in mathematics since childhood. He was sent to study in Zaragoza and later became a telecommunications engineer. In the eighties he began to teach computer architecture, a booming discipline, in the Polytechnic of Catalonia. Since then, he says with a mafia tone, he has created a European "family" with more than 1,000 doctors of this discipline whose tentacles reach "everywhere."

In 2004, the Government of José María Aznar (PP), the Generalitat of Pasqual Maragall (PSOE) and the UPC formed a consortium to build the Barcelona Supercomputing Center or National Supercomputing Center, centered on the MareNostrum I, “The most powerful machine in the world located in a public center”, as Valero himself explained, director of the center since its creation.

The Mare Nostrum 4 installed in the old chapel of the Girona Tower.

The Mare Nostrum 4 installed in the old chapel of the Girona Tower.

You had to find a place for the computer as quickly as possible to get to pass the test that selects the fastest computers in the world. The old chapel of the Girona Tower, desacralized by Franco shortly before he died in 1975, had become a storage room full of old furniture, the perfect place to put the supercomputer. Since then the old chapel has hosted four versions of the MareNostrum. The fifth will start operating in December 2020 and it will be up to 20 times more powerful than the actual. But Valero is already thinking about the sixth, the first that can get Europe to free itself from the technological yoke of the United States and Asia.

“None of the supercomputers that exist in the world have hardware European, ”explains Valero in this interview. “Within that hardware, the fundamentals are the processors that handle the information and execute the operations. These processors are basically made by the US, Japan and China. If you analyze a chip of those, it has 21,000 million transistors in eight square centimeters. There they put side doors and spy equipment, it is proven, they also spy on us at this level, ”says Valero. The BSC has just launched a project to develop chips made in Europe. “We already have a small one for the Internet of things and the next step is to create another one for supercomputing and servers. This is the great project of the BSC and our great challenge ”, he emphasizes.

Question. You say that ethics is one of the main challenges facing current technology.

Answer. Where more mistakes are being made is in the use of our data. There is no right that in order to access the Internet they can follow you, they know everything about you. That collection of data that you do not know they have to use in things that you ignore is totally contrary to ethics. What Google or Amazon do should be illegal. They are making us slaves without having won a war. They force us to be slaves because if you want to live in this society you have to have a mobile, you will connect and they will catch you. GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) are terribly bad for society.

At the level of calculation quantum computers are doing nonsense

P. Is there any way to avoid it?

R. A global agreement is needed, but it is enough that China and the United States say no so that it is useless. Despite this, Europe should make its own ethical Google and Amazon.

P. Would that be possible without a commercial use of the data?

R. In the BSC we use five petabytes with genomes of people and we don't know who they are. We do not need to know to extract scientific and medical information and knowledge from them. There is no need to invade privacy, personal information.

P. In October Google claimed to have built a quantum computer Able to solve a problem faster than any conventional computer. Do supercomputers have the days counted by quantum sovereignty?

In the electoral debates politicians barely talked about education and science, which are the two most important things for a country

R. No. No one in the world has promised to have quantum computers that replace today's computers or mobiles. What is being tried is to develop them to solve a particular problem, for example, route optimization between thousands or millions of points or to decipher codes. But in the future quantum computers will be used to do very few things. There is a trade war. Of course, Google, Microsoft and IBM are good, but they are fighting to not lose presence in the media. At this moment the quantum war is more media than technological. At the level of calculation, quantum computers are doing nonsense.

P. What new questions can be answered with the MareNostrum V?

R. We will be able to store much more data and do many more operations. For example, there are physical models whose results are partial because there is not enough computing power. Thanks to this machine we can add more components to formulas that complicate the number of operations to better simulate the behavior of the atmosphere and the Earth. Another example. Repsol uses MareNostrum IV to search for oil in poorly accessible environments such as the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Now it finds crude in one of every five sites it drills, and each well costs about 100 million euros. With a more powerful computer you can make the most reliable calculations.

P. You just knew that In 2018, investment in R&D in Spain rose 6% pushed by businesses, but state funds are frozen.

R. In Spain we dedicate 1.2% of GDP to research. USA, 2.8%. Finland contributed 3.7%. In Spain we need a minimum of resources. China has proven it. The investment has increased and has become a leader in the 5G development. The politicians in the debates barely talked about education and science, which are the two most important things for a country. Education comes first, the most important thing for a country to be free and have equal opportunities. I am a product of it, I left the ghetto. You have to guarantee this.

Separating science and universities in the new Government is a mistake

P. In Spain, companies contribute 56% of all investment in R&D, much less than the European average of 66%. Why?

R. There are many companies that do not have a strong technological base. They have triumphed over other things, such as mastering the BOE. But companies that do innovation, border things, earn money. The BSC is the result of collaboration between the Government of Spain, that of Catalonia and the UPC. It is a meeting point for ideas and companies, and it works. For each euro that these three entities give us, we bring another 20 of competitive and corporate funds.

P. What do you think about the possibility of separating science and universities in the next PSOE Y Podemos Government?

R. It's a mistake. A lot of science is done in college. For example, the UPC has three centers of excellence Severo Ochoa. It is true that the university has a shameful inbreeding, but in the university it is very good science and competes with other centers that have much more budget per student.

P. Has it affected the you process to the BSC?

R. We are a very rare case. We have always had tremendous help from all governments and parties. The BSC was created to have a staff of 70 people and now we are almost 700. This is one of the few issues on which the Government of Spain and the Generalitat agree. It is a model of coexistence. The BSC is the most important research center in which the governments of Spain and Catalonia have been collaborating since 1984.

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