HPC

IBM fires up the big iron, Facebook hands out masks, Cisco splashes cash, and CDC gets an Azure-powered bot

Everybody chill, Big Tech's got this

Mock-up of a coronavirus test

Roundup Welcome to the first in what we at The Register fervently hope will be a short-lived series: it's time for a tech COVID-19 roundup.

Big Blue and friends unleash the HPCs

Everyone's favourite besuited services provider (and slinger of P45s) IBM has buddied up with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US Department of Energy (and others) to kick off the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium.

The consortium will unleash 16 systems with more than 330 peta-FLOPS, 775,000 CPU cores and 34,000 GPUs (and counting). There is, alas, no word on how well it will run Doom Eternal.

Including contributions from the likes of NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the tech is intended to help researchers understand and develop treatment for COVID-19.

Never one to shy away from tootling on its own horn, IBM pointed to the possibilities offered by its own Summit supercomputer, which enabled researchers to come up with 77 small-molecule drug compounds out of a field of 8,000.

Some or all of those 77 might now find themselves being experimentally tested.

The effort has taken just a few days to get running, according to Dario Gil, director of IBM Research, and came out of a conversation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Cisco to fling $225m at COVID-19. Kinda

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins joined the rush of tech companies dispensing largesse in the response to the outbreak.

Acknowledging that "a lot has changed" since a week-old emission where Robbins proffered freebie versions of the likes of WebEx as well as the donation of a million of dollars' worth of collaboration and networking tech, the networking giant has more than doubled down.

Over the weekend, Robbins upped things to $225m. Sort of.

In actual fact, the cash on offer is $8m. Another $210m is in the form of the company's products. The Register contacted Cisco to find out if the lucky recipients of those products would be expected to pay support fees once the outbreak comes to an end, but has yet to receive a response.

Still, other cash will come from an employee-matching gift campaign (up to $4m in total giving) and the company's 77,000-strong workforce is being encouraged "to give what they can to help our community partners on the front lines bolster their operations in this time of need".

Back in February, Cisco announced revenues of $12bn (down 4 per cent on the previous year, with products in particular down 6 per cent). Despite this, its net income crept up by 2 per cent to $2.9bn for Q2 FY 2020.

Facebook to 'keep people safe and informed', oh, and here are 720,000 masks

While IBM was revving up the hardware and Cisco was hunting down the back of the sofa, social media giant Facebook handed over the 720,000 masks it had snapped up in the event that wildfires continued.

Speaking through his social media orifice (and possibly through a mask of his own), CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was working on "sourcing millions of more to donate."

Kang-Xing Jin, head of health at Facebook, described the other steps being taken by the platform to support those working to contain and deal with the pandemic. The first two would have had many observers coughing into their hands were it not for, you know, that virus thing.

"Making sure everyone has accurate information" and "Stopping misinformation and harmful content" are laudable goals. Sadly, both are also things that Facebook has struggled with over the years, but still, thanks to its previous efforts, we have the political leaders we undoubtedly deserve for the current crisis, so we're sure it will make just as fine a job at sifting the corona-panic.

Alternatively, you could simply pop somewhere like the NHS, which seems to have a better handle on things than your slightly racist Aunt/Uncle/Grandparent/person you met once on a work jolly (delete as appropriate).

Microsoft hands the CDC a bot

"Clara", the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Coronavirus Self-Checker, utilises Microsoft's Healthcare Bot service, itself powered by Azure. Currently to be found on the CDC's site, Clara takes the form of a messaging system – the sort that companies have taken to flinging on their websites and pretending that a human is working the switches behind the scenes.

Of course, no such thing is happening. Instead, the so-called "AI" is based on a set of response templates and functions rather like a choose-your-own adventure. Indeed, we recently built one that made a rather good fist out of playing Mornington Crescent back in the day.

However, the conversational nature of the bot could deal with many enquiries. Microsoft has furnished bot writers with a set of templates including COVID-19 risk assessment, clinical triage, FAQs and metrics, which should save overstretched healthcare professionals having to answer the same set of questions over and over again.

The CDC's implementation is, however, a little limited and prefers (in the early questions at least) to stick to simpler YES/NO-type prompts, starting with "Are you ill, or caring for someone who is ill?" before filtering out anyone not located in the US.

Microsoft's Healthcare Bot first became generally available in February 2019. Being nudged to the front line of a pandemic is possibly not the first birthday present it might have wished for. ®

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