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US-Built Supercomputer Steals Chinese Crown

Ross Kelly


Summit Supercomputer

A US-built supercomputer has finally broken the Chinese dominance of the computing world after 15 years. The Summit supercomputer is nearly 60% faster than its Chinese counterpart…

For 15 years China has maintained its position as number one in the rankings of the world’s most powerful supercomputers – until now.

Engineers at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab – located in Tennessee – have worked tirelessly to develop Summit, the most powerful of its kinds and capable of producing enough processing power to eclipse the current holder Sunway TaihuLight.

This new machine is capable of blistering performance speeds of 200 petaflops – that’s 200 million billion calculations per second. According to the lab, every human being on earth would have to do a calculation every second of every day for just under a year to match what this incredible machine can do with ease.

Power Beyond Compare

For several years now, China’s TaihuLight has maintained its position at the peak of the world’s most powerful supercomputer list. Summit, however, is a entirely different animal. It is around 60% faster than the TaihuLight and is eight times faster than the current US record holder, Titan (which is also housed at Oak Ridge).

On the face of things, this back and forth struggle to develop the world’s most powerful supercomputer appears like a vanity contest; the world’s two premier superpowers slugging it out for the prestige of claiming theirs is the best. There is more to it than this though; supercomputers will play a pivotal role in how each nation will operate in the coming years and decades.

National pride means nothing when the nation in question cannot effectively deploy new aircraft, create new materials and process information at the same capacity as its greatest rival – and trading partner…

Whichever nation holds the most powerful supercomputer holds the keys to military and economic dominance across the globe. Supercomputers are used by the military to design – and deploy – nuclear weapons and by scientists around the globe to conduct critical research. A report last year conducted by the US Government suggested that the nation should invest more in supercomputing in order to keep pace with its great rival on the development of weapons systems, hypersonic military aircraft and also commercial issues such as aerospace, oil discovery and pharmaceuticals.

Unparalleled Innovation

Built by IBM, Summit takes up the equivalent space of two tennis courts and consumes over 4,000 gallons of water every minute in an effort to cool its 37,000 processors.

The Oak Ridge team claims Summit is also the first supercomputer specifically designed to run AI applications such as machine learning and neural networks. With nearly 30,000 GPU chips made by Nvidia, it has the potential to revolutionise the development and deployment of artificial intelligence – Nvidia has much experience with AI, with its products powering a myriad of existing AI applications and hardware.

The final piece of the puzzle in this mindboggling machine comes in the form of IBM’s AI dedicated Power9 chips, which the company launched last year.

All of this adds up to one helluva supercomputer; allowing Summit to run up to 10 times faster than its American counterpart Titan whilst only using 50% more electrical power than its now outdated cousin.

All of the aforementioned specs make for a captivating read, but other than enabling the United States to maintain its position as a global powerhouse, how will it benefit humanity? Well, there are a few suggestions already.

For the Benefit of Mankind

Summit will be deployed in a number of AI-based roles in the near future, one of which will see the supercomputer process its way through enormous volumes of reports and medical images to try and better establish the link between genes and cancer. It will also play a potentially crucial role in identifying the genetic causes behind a variety of drug addictions.

Medical research will not be alone in benefiting from Summit, as it could play a role in climate modelling; allowing researchers in the US an opportunity to better understand the earth’s climate – and the changes we are witnessing.

The Next Step

Summit isn’t the end product in this global race for computing dominance. Although this race appears to be turning in favour of the United States the next one could define a generation, with the next big prize in computing being machines capable of an exaflop; which equates to a billion billion calculations per second.
This coming race will see the US and China once again battle it out for dominance in the field, with the US already looking to build several of these machines in partnership with Nvidia, IBM and other organisations such as Intel. Each is predicted to cost between $400 million and $600 million each and, if all goes to plan, will be up and running between 2021 and 2023.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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