Rise of in­tel­li­gent ma­chines key to to­day’s fore­casts

The Daily Telegraph - - Weather And Crosswords -

I HAVE spent the past week on North Amer­i­can soil where folks are gear­ing up for Mon­day’s to­tal so­lar eclipse by stock­pil­ing sun­glasses and play­ing Bon­nie Tyler records on full.

But the pur­pose of my visit was not “eclipse chas­ing” but rather vis­it­ing the world’s lead­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence lab­o­ra­to­ries.

Peo­ple there were brim­ming with revo­lu­tion­ary zeal about the po­ten­tial of these new tech­nolo­gies to change the way we live – and fore­cast­ing the weather was chief among them.

Indeed, ma­chines with AI have al­ready proven to be far more ac­cu­rate at pre­dict­ing weather pat­terns than the tra­di­tional fore­cast­ing model used on stan­dard com­put­ers.

Such is the pace of change that even the new Met Of­fice’s much-trum­peted “su­per-com­puter”, which is ca­pa­ble of mak­ing 16,000tril­lion cal­cu­la­tions per sec­ond could soon be out of date.

Bri­tish fore­cast­ing en­tered the ma­chine age in 1959 when the Met Of­fice bought a Fer­ranti Mer­cury, nick­named Me­teor. Prior to that, weather charts were pain­stak­ingly up­dated by hand.

Re­cently, reader Stan­ley Jones, for­mer RAF me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal as­sis­tant, wrote to tell me a bit about this old sys­tem of work­ing in the Sec­ond World War.

Stan­ley, who was posted at RAF More­ton-in-marsh, Glos, from 1941 to 1943, re­calls writ­ing hourly weather re­ports in red and black ink, which were then coded and teleprinted to HQ in Dun­sta­ble.

Small hy­dro­gen-filled bal­loons mea­sured the height of the cloud base and on bright days, larger bal­loons were re­leased and tracked through a theodo­lite to de­ter­mine the strength and di­rec­tion of winds.

It was pi­o­neer­ing work. But the no­tion then of in­tel­li­gent ma­chines tak­ing over was the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion. Half a cen­tury later, the fu­ture has ar­rived. What will hap­pen next? Joe Shute

Spit­fires got weather guid­ance dur­ing the war from me­te­o­rol­o­gists us­ing bal­loons

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