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Tech Upgrade for Latin America

Multi-continent consortium can help southern members close the computer-equipment gap

By Julia MichaelsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1992



SANTIAGO, CHILE

BEDRICK MAGAS is studying an unusually large gap in the ozone layer over Punta Arenas, a Chilean port set on the Straight of Magellan, almost at the very tip of South America. His research, at Universidad de Magallanes, could have much to say about changes in the global environment.

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But partly because the university is located in a developing country, Dr. Magas doesn't have the funds and technology he says he needs for a complete project.

"Global-change studies, for example greenhouse-effect modeling and the ozone hole's impact on lower layers of the atmosphere, need massive computer power. Right now, the simulations are very short of accuracy because to date it has been impossible to include the effects on the vegetation cover in climate-modeling. You need a 1,000-fold increase in [available] computer power to know how the greenhouse [phenomenon] affects local [vegetation] in a 100- to 200-kilometer area," he says.

The kind of computer that could do this work is called a supercomputer. In the United States, there are almost 200 supercomputers, and they are used for everything from petroleum exploration to automobile materials design. There is only one supercomputer in Latin America - in Mexico.

A newly formed consortium of computer-equipment manufacturers and universities seeks to help fill this gap. Created a year ago, the Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium (ISTEC) has already carried out student and faculty exchanges among universities in Latin America, Spain, and the US and is working to exchange and develop curriculum materials. (See related article.) Now the consortium wants to set up a supercomputer network linking the three continents, using satellite telecommunic ations.

Dubbed "Los Libertadores," or "The Liberators," the supercomputer project is meant to catapult Latin America into the next century, giving researchers access to the best technology available and to what others are doing in their fields.

"Now that all economic barriers are coming down, Latin America will have to compete on a level playing field with any industry in any place in the world," says Carlos Marino, a Colombian who is senior director of the Industry, Science and Technology Department at Minnesota-based Cray Research Inc., a supercomputer manufacturer.

Cray is designing the $40 million to $50 million, five-year Libertadores project and hopes to get funding for it from multilateral funding agencies, industry, foundations, governments, and consortium members. Motorola, Northern Telecom, Texas Instruments, John Fluke Manufacturing, and Sun Microsystems are also involved in the consortium.

Much of Latin America is decades behind developments in world technology because of scarcities in funding and trained personnel.

The experience of Ramiro Jordan, one of the consortium's founders, is typical of what happens when a Latin American wants to progress in his field. Born in Bolivia, he went to a university in Argentina and did his graduate work in the US. Today, he is an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

"You're out there because you had the opportunity to make it," he says. "It's frustrating because you can't go back to where you were raised, where your family is, because there's nothing to do there, there are no job opportunities.... But you still have home in the back of your head and the feeling it would be nice to 'pay back' the country."