Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds

The music-streaming portal Spotify is popular for similar reasons. It provides participating record companies with current information about music tastes and usage behavior, and it allows bands to plan upcoming tours by choosing locations where Spotify users listen to their songs most frequently. An Electronic Brain to Defeat Cancer But Big Data also promises to benefit society in other ways. Hope for millions of cancer patients can be found on the second floor of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), in Babelsberg, a district of Postdam outside of Berlin. It consists of a rack with 25 slots, each with blinking diodes. Each of the computers has 40 processors instead of only one. The room is kept at low temperatures to prevent the €1.5 million brain, with its 1,000 processor cores, from overheating.

Plattner, founder of the SAP software group and sponsor of the institute, was personally involved in the development of the idea, which seems relatively straightforward. The Babelsberg computing machine sucks all data directly into its main memory, which enables it to compute at 1,000 times the speed of conventional computers, and sometimes even faster.

The process, which began at HPI as a project by eight undergraduate students with the working title "Sanssouci DB," is known internationally by the name "in-memory." It has won prizes for innovation and has become part of SAP's portfolio. The company's current Hana database technology is based on the in-memory process. The head of HPI, mathematician Christoph Meinel, sees the technology as a foundation for both commercial applications and opportunities for cancer therapy. "Thanks to the in-memory process, we are on the threshold of personalized medicine," says Meinel.

It currently takes months to decode a person's genome in order to come up with a treatment tailored to an individual patient, Meinel explains. This isn't surprising, given the roughly three billion genetic building blocks in a person's DNA. But now scientists know that every tumor is different, which means that the same treatment can affect people in different ways.

Triggering the Alarm

With the help of his new "super brain," the decoding of an individual genome can be reduced to a few seconds, says Meinel. In addition, the Babelsberg computer spends its nights extracting all information from publicly accessible genome databases, searching the data for comparable cases to find treatments that resulted in high survival rates and the best possible quality of life. "Until recently, this matching process would have taken months," says Meinel.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Manchester are working on another Big Data project, a "magic carpet" that could help senior citizens who live alone. The device is installed on the floor like an ordinary carpet, with built-in sensors recording the person's steps. The data enables a computer to determine whether the person has gotten out of bed, for example, and can analyze activities to see how they compare with the person's normal movement pattern. Deviations could indicate a medical emergency, and an alarm is triggered.

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