IBM researcher Kevin Nowka talks about the big, big data

Austin Forum 2014 Kevin Nowka big data

Dr. Kevin Nowka at the AT&T Center at the Austin Forum.

Dr. Kevin Nowka is cute. He’s a little nervous to leave his laptop in the AT&T conference room just to go out for a photo shoot. But when he stands in front of those pretty red flowers and start smiling into the sun for the Austin Forum photogs, he looks as so cute I want to hand off all of my personal data to IBM.

Dr. Nowka, a grad of Stanford University and the director of IBM Research, Austin, specializes in high-performance and low-power circuits, processor design, and technology. He works with teams of scientists studying system models, creating faster and ever more efficient VLSI circuits (Very large-scale integrated circuits, see WIKI for more: The short version: they are packing thousands of transistors on a single chip. Go, IBM. Make my phone smarter. Or make my Nest thermostat. And other intelligent whatnot.)

A VLSI integrated-circuit die

The dilemma of big data: we can capture it, but who will put it to effective use? Dr. Nowka discussed the new tech twists that will put the tools for data management into play.

So…big problems cause big data. But, to solve big problems, we need big data. They are interrelated.

Nowka listed off some examples of big data, big problems, and big opportunities:

  • Highway congestion: urban roadways that are broken by being underbuilt and causing congestion cost the U.S. roughly 5.5 billion an hour and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. (Statistics from Texas Transportation Institute).
  • The U.S. could save $130 billion annually by deploying smart-grid technology to electrical delivery systems.
  • Big data analysis goal is to draw value from data that has variety, velocity, volume, and veracity. Apply this intentionality to law enforcement, traffic control, telecom, manufacturing, and more.
  • Gross waste of resources in government systems could be addressed by clever applications of tech to big data, going after fraud, reducing waste.

The volume of digital data is expected to double every two years. That goes for you, for me, for the US, for the Library of Congress, etc. Just think how much data you personally store; you are probably creating increasing amounts of personal data with no end in sight.  By 2017, the total digital data will surpass the number of stars in the observable universe.

And the more access people have, the more data they create. About two-thirds of the world still does not have access to the Internet, so we can expect our data creation to grow exponentially as more of the world gets connected.

There were 5.9 trillion text messages sent in 2011. That represents five times more data than the voice data sent via phones. (Phone factoid: there are more than 6.3 billion mobile phones out there.)

BRL61-IBM 305 RAMAC.jpeg
By User <a href=”; class=”extiw” title=”en:User:RTC”>RTC</a> on <a class=”external text” href=””>en.wikipedia</a&gt; – Photo by U. S. Army Red River Arsenal, Public Domain, Link

A picture of the IBM RAMAC disc storage from 1950s. We now can store a thousand times more data on the average memory stick.  ( )

Social interactions as well as mobile communications create almost unimaginable amounts of data. And the type of data is changing: currently 80 percent of the data being created is now unstructured. (Structured data is data in a relational database. Unstructured is…everything else.) And data is connecting to other data, as refrigerators hook up in a horrifying and obscene ways with phones, toasters, tablets, and, ultimately the 2001 Hal computer. (I added that last part, not Dr. Nowka).

Something to think about the next time you take a ride on a plane: it takes a billion lines of code to run the software that runs an airplane. Each engine on a plane generates 10-TB every 30 minutes.

Also, 70 percent of most data is multimedia. Don’t just think images from your phone. More than a billion medical images were generated just in 2012.

Velocity: data is in motion, coming at us in gigabit speed. It can be managed in “real time” models, and used to predict. We can take actions based on what the data tells us. Homeland security requires 50 billion records a day; 320 terabytes of deep analysis.

A scary reality: one in three business leaders polled said they were making business decisions without a clear understanding of what their company data is indicating.

So, how do you make sense of unstructured text data? Since computers got us into this giant data situation, perhaps we can use them to help us make sense of it.

Currently a tiny percentage of potentially useful data is tagged, and less is analyzed. This makes me think of crowd-sourced data tagging, such as crowd corrections of facts in WIKI, in Google maps, in WAZE, a hundred more such loose but effective collaborations.

Tagging data: word based, or topic based tagging. Machine learning is being used to classify words into topics, which can then be mined, to retrieve and analyze the specific data that is relevant to a specific topic or keyword.  Think “Ben Laden.” You probably should not say that phrase on your cell phone or in an email — or in a blog post. Whoops!  JK. But, seriously. Watch what you say, type, blog.

Nowka showed us an IBM application that sifts through Facebook data to find selected topics. He can do the same thing with your tweets, and snag location information, too.

Austin Forum 2013 Kevin Nowka: big data

Image data. Computers are making sense out of it. Consider medical image category recognition software: it combs through millions of images to locate images that correlate to a topic of interest on a specific disease. Consider ImageCLEF 2012: a computer attempt to classify images into categories that yielded about 88% correct image classification.  ( )

The next step is having a natural language access to big data. Watson is an open domain question answering system that delivers precise answers to questions, with accuracy. IBM Watson finds, reads, scores, and combines information. It searches structured and unstructured data. It finds potential answers and compares in a scoring engine to determine confidence level in the potential answer.

It is important to know when you do not know. (“There are unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time.) A system like WATSON can help us avoid the “unknown unknowns.”

Dr. Nowka vision is big: data analytics taking a variety of high volume, high velocity data of all types, and using natural language accessible systems such as IBM Watson to mine that data for meaning and substance. There is no shortage of problems that we can apply to analytics.

So, questions. How can big data not become…evil? Nowka says, “Knowledge is power. But those in control of data should be making sure that privacy is protected for those whose data is being processed.”

What’s next? How close can we come to AI mimicking the robustness of human analysis? Nowka speaks of IBM Watson and what it can, and cannot do, at this time.

What sort of cool places will IBM go as they play with their big data? Currently, IBM is investing in Smarter Planet. IBM tech is going after big city issues, after safety, petroleum, traffic, after health issues. IBM wants to apply Watson to big health centers such as Sloan Kettering. So much more can be found on their website. ( ).


Austin Forum event for Big Data

Brain hacking with the smartest guys in the room

SxSW 2013 panel brain hacking whurley 2 more

whurley (William Hurley), co-founder, Chaotic Moon; Kevin Leahy, founder, Knowledge Advocate, LLC; and Russell Poldrack, PhD, director of the Imaging Research Center, UT Austin, discuss brain-altering software and human evolution at the Austin Forum in the fall of 2013.

“Our brains: the organ pipes of the infinite” — William James, “The Knowing of Things Together”

Three concepts; past. present. future.

[This blog post is rough notes taken while three smart guys chatted each other up about human and computer intelligence. The conversation was fast, speculative, and at times random. Listening to them exercising their wits was great fun. I thank the Austin Forum for the evening and I post this for whatever it might be worth to the wandering online reader. The entire conversation is posted as four YouTube files. Starts here: ]


Russ: So…What type of software got us where we are now in brain science?

The 50s, the 60s, were eras of building neural networks. By the 80s, this quest developed iteratively with neuroscience. Now, you see the results of that research and testing out in the world; examples include Siri, Androids, and so-called “Deep Learning” techniques.

whurley: as contrarian, in the next 5-10 years we will see this as the past (as in ancient and primitive). (He’s disappointed in the software, thus far.) There is so much we don’t know yet in neuroscience. For example: look at the current neural tracking head software: it’s not there yet. But nowadays there are ten times the number of people developing software in this area.

Brain science: where is it now?

Russ: It’s a brand new baby, just opening its eyes.

whurley: It’s like the beginning of 2001, where bones are being beat on the ground [by proto-humans]. This will change the world, once we understand the brain math. (Example: The Matrix: “Here’s the Kung Fu module” and suddenly you know that martial art.)

Think of current brain research as a frontier town [with many involved in its study and in research and testing]. You have all sorts. And you grow. But when does the law show up? [Currently, it’s made up of] very independent-minded networks.

Russ: Phrenology. Franz Joseph Gall was the first person to propose the idea that bumps on the skull were related to different things the brain does. He was RIGHT about his idea that different areas of the brain are doing different things.   When your brain does something, [the action] wires into the structure of the brain and therefore changes the brain itself. (We literally are what we think.)

whurley: we are in the past. (His current hero is Christof Koch Then whurley defines a “hero” —  To be a hero you have to be a pioneer — and you also have to be right!   🙂

Russ: We can manipulate what single neurons do now. This is new work. It’s easier to do something when you can measure it correctly. But, that said, probably everything we believe now is probably wrong!

whurley: Therefore we are visionaries, not heroes!


whurley; Look at the emotive. Example: a set of sensors that you wear on your head, doused in saline. This picks up signals in your brain. But your brain is also a chemical system. This only picks up data that is outside of your head, not what’s also going on inside of it.  The systems that are being developed are good efforts —but most of the time they are doing guesswork, often based on training.

Kevin: Academics are working to make sure that data is there, so that the emotive devices will have what they need to work better.

Russ: Example: a neuromarketer, so called, discussed what the brain looks like when it’s in love. In fact, that part of the brain turns on in a variety of situations, including when an iPhone sends a sound that a message is received. But in the lab, they are starting to create a lot of computer algorithms that can be used to predict what is going on in people’s brains under certain circumstances.

whurley describes a device called “” that sends electrical signals into the brain that is purported to assist with meditation. But perhaps it is a focusing device. Some aspects of the software could be useful. []

Russ:  The device has great descriptors and suggestions of wow stuff, then tons of warning disclaimers.

Tai chi: turns out some of the old stuff is some of the best stuff: meditation, deep, challenging conversations with other people. Your brain is mostly social.

software…what would you be doing?

Russ: I’d be interested in seeing how far you can push certain techniques such as EEG, pushing the envelope, seeing what you can record and what you can predict about their brain responses.

short term…

whurley: Emotive hardware. Kickstarter has a sexier product up there right now that raised a lot of funding. Tons of opportunities for devices that help people focus. (could he be referring to this kickstarter? )

On the research side: several schools are putting a chip in your brain and through a software pathway, that chip can move a robot arm. The science was good, the algorithm was good, but also the brain was good. It made the arm move.

Russ: Our brains are incredibly adaptive.

whurley: But..when I think of software and hardware…I hope you don’t have to cut me open to do this. Amazing surgery Experiments in progress — but this will seem like caveman trephining in the future. ] (For images of early brain surgery: ]

favorite gadget for the future, wish list…

whurley: Common thread about an experience, where you can transfer an experience. Brainstorm with Christopher Walken: the head device. [ ]. You record experiences and it can be played back to another person then to the matrix, to (a brain data heist).

Russ: A system that makes us all better than we are now. But where do we end up as a species? Clearly, there is a reason that we are what we are today. But there is a problem: the world we are in now is not the world we evolved in. So, can we push ourselves too far past what we are as a species?

Kevin: will we become obsolete?

Whurley: It is inevitable that we will have it and use it. But for now, it seems more improbable. This is the greatest time to be alive from a scientific standpoint. The longest what I predict takes to come true, the more of a visionary I am proved to be (a small joke).

Russ: Software has changed our brains. Already.

lightning round of Q&A…

Q: What is the most significant tech advancement in brain research?

Russ: Optogenetics.

whurley: Obama funds mapping the brain ($100 million).

Russ: There is, but where do we put it? Example: give a rat a substance that erases a memory of a substance it has learned to avoid. Or… consider the use of dicyclomine to treat post-traumatic stress disorders.

whurley: Time Magazine about pharma to pinpoint and erase memories.

Q: Is it possible to build a brain that can grow and develop and keep your brain going forward?

whurley: All knowledge is possible. lots of effort. IBM focusing on that. But in computer science, you need to understand how it works and we don’t know how the brain works– yet. Watson: IBM role of Watson in brain enhancement.

whurley: I’m an ex-IBMer and I love IBM. While that science is very far advanced, a lot of the science around that sucks and there need to be more projects in that area. There are 1,000 projects that could come out of that.

Q: Do we have anything that can help with epilepsy?

Russ: I’m not sure of the work MC says on split-brain research…

Q: How could this software help with mental illnesses, such as bipolar?

Russ: Perhaps…such as an app that you can talk to that can work with you when you are having a panic attack?

Q: whurley re skateboard. Did you expect the reaction to the skateboard thing?

whurley: No! We did not. Kinnect. That’s off-topic. My reaction was shock, we bought that stuff on Ebay.

Q: Can sonic analysis take the place of more invasive stuff?

Russ: There is more interest in using ultrasound to change what the brain is doing. Optogenetics is the hot thing now. Example: a channel from a jellyfish that turns a cell off and on and then using that cell to control diseases such as Parkinsons Disease. ( )

Q: If there was one thing about the brain that you could know with absolute certainty, what would it be?

whurley: I would like to know the code for programming the brain.

Russ: What would be the computational architecture? What are brains really built to do? Answer: adapt, survive.

Q: Someone cannot talk, but they can sing. How can that be?

Russ: It is different machinery in the brain that does singing and a part that talks

Q: Is there one big predictive analysis using brain software?

whurley: there are companies trying to use predictive analysis right now, specifically for commercial purposes.

Russ: we are trying to figure out what you can predict from MRI data. He then references the book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  (,_Fast_and_Slow ) Software to help you with your cognitive biases.

Q: What do you think that finding of neuroplasticity means?

Russ: moving away from functional parts of the brain “doing things” to “how the brain parts are networking together.” The Human Connectome Project: how do things talk to one another?  ( )

Q: What about the hazards?

Whurley: Risks: changing chemistry, implanting electrodes, using Focus, whatever. If you are going to mess up an organ, it should not be your brain. How do you ethically do testing and research without it being at people’s expense.

Kevin: Brain training studies. Interested in interns and workers.

Russ: For more discussion, you can reach me on twitter. ( @russpoldrack )

Whurley: I can be reached at [invites others, if they to be involved as interns…”and you don’t value your brain!” laughs.

I just found an article posted on brain altering software on KUT featuring whurley ( ) and here’s a fun “official headshot” of whurley for your delectation:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.17.33 PM

For more information:

Rock star: Chicxulub, the 65 million year old crater that rocked the world

SxSW 2013: Chicxulub, crater rocked the world

Austin Forum hosted Dr. Sean Gulick who has been studying the region of Chicxulub crater, which was created when a gigantic meteor rocketed down from the sky and plummeted into the ocean near the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico 65.5 million years ago. After contemplating the damage done by this massive space rock, you don’t need to have specialized knowledge about rocks, craters, or geology to understand that stray asteroids slamming into the earth are Bad News and that humanity has got to send a contingent of explorers and colonizers off this planet before another event of this nature occurs, potentially bringing on the extinction of our species.

Dr. Sean Gulick

Dr. Sean Gulick in Progresso, Mexico, near the Chicxulub Impact Crater (from UT Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.

We live in denial about how fragile life on Earth is. Viewed from a human scale, the planet seems so big, eternally rotating, tilting, seemingly stable, predictable. Sadly, we Earthlings are not spinning around in the best of neighborhoods. Dr. Gulick showed a slide covered with black dust specks: each speck represented a hunk of space junk whizzing around in our solar system, many with the potential to slam into Earth and rock our world. Literally.

It took a long time for geologists to discover the giant depression in the ocean floor now known as the Chicxulub impact crater. When it was found, hopeful entrepreneurs drilled the area, seeking oil. What they found instead was evidence that an extraterrestrial rock landed there, putting a violent and sudden end to the age of the dinosaurs and driving the planet from the Cretaceous period into the Paleogene period. Scientific evidence has proved that the sudden mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period was caused by a single event: a destructive meteor.

When you view a virtual model of a relatively small hunk of rock hitting a planet, it does not seem like a meteor could cause that much damage. Earth, huge; meteor rock, comparably small. However, the asteroid that made the Chicxulub crater was large: 10 kilometers, or six miles, wide.

One way to measure how big a meteor was was is to consider how deep its impact was on the earth. This could be phrased as, “How big a hole did it punch into the earth?” The “transient” crater — the first impact of the crater, before the earth affected by the impact melted, uplifted, and froze in time with the top layer rolling over into the crater — was probably 35 kilometers deep and 100 kilometers across.

But it’s not all about meteor size and the crater it creates: a crater’s impact on the earth transfers extraordinary kinetic energy to the planet. The Chicxulub asteroid was moving about 22 kilometers per second, or 50,000 miles per hour. When it hit Earth, about 1% of the energy of the impact was displaced into tsunamis and hurricane force winds. The other 99% of the energy was directed into its target: Mother Earth.

Dr. Gulick described that energy force as equal to 13 earthquakes combined. The heat from the blast cooked anything within 750 miles. Millions of glassy balls of molten impact material rained death on every living thing, from dinosaurs to trees, as the rocks and earth became suddenly fluid, like water, under the extreme forces when the two space objects – earth and meteor – collided. Particulate matter was thrown into the earth’s atmosphere, turning day into night and plunging the planet into a three-year global winter. World-wide darkness suppressed photosynthesis and collapsed food chains.

Dr. Gulick pointed out that the “ejecta” was worse than the impact itself. The matter that was thrown into the air increased the sulfur content of the atmosphere, caused acid rain, emitted infrared rays that heated up the nearby atmosphere like a pizza oven, and changed the chemistry of the ocean, causing mass extinction.

The meteor killed off most of the life on Earth. What survived after that massive storm of destruction were significantly smaller life forms, such as the mammals who evolved into humans.

We have to get to know impact craters and the meteors that cause them much better, because there is a chance that one day a meteor will end life as we know it — again. The meteor that slammed into the Chixculub Crater may have resulted in humans as top dog on Earth, but the only constant in life is change.

This UT Austin Forum presentation was sponsored by the Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC). Big, big data needs to be analyzed to learn about our planet’s prior experiences with meteors, about crater impacts on other planets, and about the meteors that are careening around in space, possibly on a path to slam into the earth in the future.

Did anyone have a clue that a meteor was about to smash into Russia in February, the largest to hit the planet in more than 100 years? Nope. Let’s put some funding into meteor detection and deflection. Consider the footage taken in Russian Urals region. If what happened in Russia in 2013 were to happen over a metropolitan area, it would be a major catastrophe. At it was, it caused extraordinary damage, injured more than 1,000, and for a brief time emitted light that was brighter than the sun. (See Wiki on Chelyabinsk meteor.)

Although there are less of these impact events on Earth now than say, 65.5 million years ago, we don’t see near as many craters than we should. For an idea of what’s really going on, take a gander at the moon. Heck, there’s so many impact craters that the scientists give them names.

Meteor Russian Urals

Russian Urals region meteor crater: recovered rock could be part of the Chelyabinsk meteor. Pix from Daily Mail, UK.

Compare earth and our lunar companion: the moon looks like a teenager’s skin under a harsh light. One reason we don’t see big impact craters on the earth’s surface is because the surface is constantly changing. And by constantly changing, Dr. Gulick means every 200 million years or so, give or take 50 million, when the tectonic plates shift around, effectively covering up impact craters. Space junk was smacking into us at a higher order of magnitude then than now, but the evidence has been swept under the oceanic plates.

Chicxulub is the only confirmed “extinction” crater on the planet: ground zero for the end of the non-avian dinosaurs. Not that there have not been other mass extinctions. In fact, there have been four or five of them. There are theories that acidification of the ocean – similar to the ocean changes observed by scientists today  – might be the cause of some earlier planetary extinctions. But that is the subject of some other blog post.

Sleep soundly if you can, as you consider that before another 45 million years pass, it’s likely this planet will be hit with another extinction-producing asteroid….anytime in the next 45 million years. Maybe tonight.

Tribfest 2014 Crater Slide Science is hard

A scientist could into detail about the carbonates, the enhanced dissolution, impact melt, mega blocks, crater seismic gravity, magnetic wells, melt sheets, gravity anomalies, distinct ejecta distribution patterns, velocity models…gigapascals…tons of gigapascals… but this part was way over my head.

Tribfest Slide Fireball

But…fireball layer! That, I can picture.

Actually, I didn’t picture it quite like Dr. Gulick’s slide. I was picturing something more like the Burning Man fireball.

The catastrophic events that follow a massive meteor impact are unimaginable – except to scientists, who created an animated movie of the global catastrophe combined with scary music. Thankfully, the clip does not depict balls of hellfire raining doomsday on screaming tyrannosaurs, raptors, and sauropods.

In the next two years, the scientists involved in the study of the Chicxulub impact crater plan a drilling expedition to the location. They are interested in what kind of material will be found deep in the crater. It was incredibly hot at the Chicxulub area for about two million years. Life forms evolved in the thermal springs: what must they have been like?

The scientists also want to perform studies comparing the Chicxulub crater with craters on other planets. There will be opportunities for teachers and other researchers to participate in these future studies. If you want to get involved, contact Dr. Gulick.

And what blog posting about the end of the Age of Dinosaurs would be complete without a happy moment spent watching Godzilla dancing?

Event: “The 65.5 Million Year Old Chicxulub Impact Crater: Insights into Planetary Processes, Extinction and Evolution” presented by Dr. Sean Gulick, Research Associate Professor, Institute for Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin.

About the speaker: Dr. Sean Gulick is a research associate professor in the Institute for Geophysics at The University of Texas at Austin. His primary scientific interest is the examination of deformation of the Earth. Current projects include examining tectonic and glacial climate linkages in Alaska, investigations of geophysical images of the Chicxulub impact crater, and many others. To learn more about these projects:

Update: The team blogged their expedition and research on location, which came to a close in in 2016:

Links for more information

About the Austin Forum: The Austin Forum is a monthly speaker series and networking event that hosts distinguished leaders who share their knowledge and experience about the confluence of science, technology and society in the 21st century. For more information see their website.

For more information about the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC):

For general info on the Chiczulub crater, see:


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