Looking up: The parabolic antennas of the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in Chile’s Atacama desert. Picture: REUTERS
Looking up: The parabolic antennas of the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in Chile’s Atacama desert. Picture: REUTERS

Amazon.com is in talks with Chile to house and mine massive amounts of data generated by that country’s giant telescopes, which could prove fertile ground for the company to develop new artificial intelligence tools.

The talks are aimed at fuelling growth in Amazon’s cloud computing business in Latin America and boosting its data processing capabilities.

President Sebastian Pinera’s centre-right government, which is seeking to wean Chile’s $325bn economy from reliance on copper mining, announced last week that it plans to pool data from all its telescopes onto a virtual observatory stored in the cloud, without giving a timeframe. The government talked of the potential for astrodata innovation but did not give details and did not comment on companies that might host astrodata in the computing cloud.

Amazon executives have been holding discussions with the Chilean government for two years about a possible data centre to provide infrastructure for firms and for its government to store data on the cloud, says an official at InvestChile.

For at least some of that time, the talks have included discussion about the possibility of Amazon Web Services hosting astrodata, astronomer Chris Smith says, based on e-mail exchanges he was part of between Amazon Web Services and Chilean officials over the past six months.

Smith was at the time mission head of Aura observatory, which manages three of the US-funded telescope projects in Chile.

Jeffrey Kratz, Amazon Web Services GM for public sector for Latin American, Caribbean and Canada, has visited Chile for talks with Pinera. He confirms the company’s interest in astrodata but says Amazon has no announcements to make at present.

"Chile is a very important country for Amazon Web Services," he says. "We kept being amazed about the incredible work on astronomy and the telescopes, as real proof points on innovation and technology working together."

Kratz says the Chilean telescopes can benefit from the cloud by eliminating the "heavy lifting of managing IT".

Amazon Web Services is a fast-growing part of Amazon’s business. In July it reported second-quarter sales of $6.1bn, up 49% over the same period a year ago, accounting for 12% of Amazon’s overall sales.

Chile is home to 70% of global astronomy investment, thanks to the cloudless skies above its northern Atacama Desert, the driest on earth. Within five years, the South American country will host three of the world’s four next-generation, billion-dollar telescopes, according to Smith.

He and economy ministry officials leading the Chilean initiative to store astrodata in the cloud saw potential in more earth-bound matters.

The tools developed for the astrodata project could be used for a wide variety of other uses, such as tracking potential shop-lifters, fare-evaders on public transport and endangered animals, economy ministry spokesperson Julio Pertuze said at the event announcing Chile’s aim to build a virtual observatory on the cloud.

Smith says the technology could also be applied to medicine and banking to spot anomalies in large datasets.

Amazon — whose founder and largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, is well known for his interest in space — already provides a cloud platform for the Hubble Telescope’s data and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia.

As Amazon explores the potential in Chile’s astrodata, tech rival Google is already a member of Chile’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be fully operational in Cerro Pachon in 2022. Google also has a data centre established in the country.

Justin Burr, senior public relations associate for artificial and machine learning at Google, declines to comment on the company’s astrodata plans.

Smith says that what the Chileans are calling the Astroinformatics Initiative — to harness the potential of astrodata — could enable Amazon Web Services access to the research that astronomers are doing on projects.

"We are going to have to go through a huge database of billions of stars to find the three stars that an astronomer wants," Smith says, adding that is not much different from searching a database of billions of people to find the right profile for a targeted advertisement.

"So a tool that might get developed in the astronomical world could be applicable for Amazon in their commercial world," he says.

Amazon’s role in the astrodata project would also give it an entry into a market where it is seeking to expand.

Amazon — which controls nearly one-third of the global cloud computing business, ahead of rivals Microsoft and Google — has struggled to attract public institutions in Latin America, including research facilities, to store their data online instead of on physical machines.

Amazon Web Services declined to provide any information on the size of its regional business in Latin America.