Supercomputer arms race hots up as US commits $258m to research

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To try and stay ahead in the supercomputer arms race with China, the US is pumping $258m into six firms to speed up development.

While various countries – including Ireland – are investing time and money to develop the next generation of supercomputers capable of performing enormous computations in seconds, the US and China are firmly in the lead.

Within the US, the most notable example would be IBM’s Watson programme, which plans to overhaul various sectors from healthcare to insurance with artificial intelligence and big data.

However, aiming to be the world leader in supercomputers by 2020 is China, which last year revealed the most powerful machine in the world, the Sunway TaihuLight, with 93 petaflops of processing power.

Now, the supercomputer arms race is heating up with news that the US Department of Energy (DoE) is pumping $258m into research in this field across six American tech companies: IBM, Intel, HP Enterprise, Nvidia, Cray and AMD.

The purpose of the PathForward programme, the department said, is to maximise the energy efficiency and overall performance of future large-scale supercomputers.

As part of the deal, the companies will be providing additional funding, amounting to at least 40pc of their total project cost, bringing the total investment to at least $430m.

Another player enters the fray

“The work funded by PathForward will include development of innovative memory architectures, higher-speed interconnects, improved reliability systems, and approaches for increasing computing power without prohibitive increases in energy demand,” said Paul Messina, director of the DoE’s Exascale Computing Project.

“It is essential that private industry plays a role in this work going forward. Advances in computer hardware and architecture will contribute to meeting all four challenges.”

The head of the DoE, Rick Perry, went so far as to say that supercomputers will be essential to the US’s “security, prosperity, and economic competitiveness as a nation”.

However, the US is now facing the prospect of a three-way race to supercomputing domination, with news that Japan is currently building a supercomputer that can outperform China’s Sunway TaihuLight.

According to CNN, Japan’s AI Bridging Cloud Infrastructure supercomputer will be capable of performing at an incredible 130 petaflops, or 130 quadrillion calculations per second.

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Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com