Peak performance: US supercomputer snatches crown from China

12 Jun 2018

Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge Labs. Image: US Department of Energy

The new supercomputer from the US can perform tasks at mind-boggling speeds.

Last week, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee unveiled Summit, a supercomputer capable of 200 petaflops or 200,000trn calculations per second.

More than twice as powerful as the previous world-record holder, China’s Sunway TaihuLight, Summit’s debut sees the US become the base for the world’s most powerful supercomputer after a number of years. It had been in development at IBM since 2014 and is eight times more powerful than its predecessor, Titan.

Approximately 6.3bn people making a calculation at the same time every second for a whole year would be required to beat what Summit can accomplish in one single second.

Summit can compute 30 years worth of data saved on a desktop computer in just one hour. The 200-petaflop speed shows just how rapidly supercomputing technology is evolving – a little more than 10 years ago, a machine that could reach a single petaflop had not even been built.

Summit will be used in AI projects

The Oak Ridge research team said that the system is the first to be made bespoke for use in artificial intelligence (AI) applications. This will have major implications for AI development in the US and will undoubtedly heat up competition across the globe in the thriving field of AI.

Supercomputers are used for an array of tasks, many of which are vital for security and general welfare. Climate trend predictions, nuclear simulations and genomic research are just a handful of areas in which supercomputers are crucial.

“Today’s launch of the Summit supercomputer demonstrates the strength of American leadership in scientific innovation and technology development. It’s going to have a profound impact in energy research, scientific discovery, economic competitiveness and national security,” said US secretary of energy, Rick Perry.

Precision medicine and nifty new materials

The supercomputer is already being used to analyse the data from the Million Veteran Program, which aims to collect data from 1m veterans in order to aid the development of precision medicine.

It will also be used to help identify next-generation materials for better batteries, more resilient building materials and more efficient semiconductors.

While Summit is now the most powerful supercomputer in the world, China still operates more supercomputers overall. That said, this may be a stepping stone for the US to develop an exaflop computer, which equates to 1,000 petaflops. Perry has said the government is aiming to deliver this by 2021.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects