UK invests £225m to create its most powerful AI supercomputer

2 Nov 2023

Image: National Composites Centre

Built by HPE and powered by the latest Nvidia chips, the Isambard-AI supercomputer represents a ‘huge leap forward’ for AI computational power in the UK.

The UK is investing £225m to create an AI supercomputer that will be the country’s most powerful machine and help it play catch-up with the US and China.

Announced at the ongoing AI Safety Summit hosted by the UK, the supercomputer will be located at the National Composites Centre, which is part of the University of Bristol. Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) will lead its development while Nvidia will provide the chips.

Named the Isambard-AI after 19th century British engineer Isambard Brunel, the supercomputer is poised to be 10 times faster than the current fastest machine in the UK, built on the HPE Cray EX and packing more than 5,000 Nvidia GH200 chips.

Once ready in the second half of next year, the Isambard-AI supercomputer will be used by organisations across the UK for a variety of AI applications, including the training of large language models, discovery of new drugs and advanced climate research.

“Isambard-AI represents a huge leap forward for AI computational power in the UK,” said Prof Simon McIntosh-Smith, director of the Isambard National Research Facility at the University of Bristol.

“Today Isambard-AI would rank within the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world and, when in operation later in 2024, it will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere.”

The news comes as the UK is trying to lead the world in AI collaboration and regulation by hosting the first major international summit on AI safety.

Yesterday (1 November), the UK and 28 other regions including Ireland, the US and China signed the Bletchley Declaration to commit to global cooperation in the sector and lay down ground rules.

According to a statement released by the UK government on the Bletchley Declaration, it will establish a “shared agreement and responsibility on the risks, opportunities and a forward process for international collaboration on frontier AI safety”, particularly through greater scientific collaboration.

Other countries to sign the declaration include India, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Spain and the UAE. The agreement marks the first notable time the US and China, who are currently not on good terms in relation to tech collaboration, have consented to cooperation on AI.

European lawmakers passed the landmark AI Act in June to rein in ‘high-risk’ AI activities and protect the rights of citizens. The rules will make certain AI technology prohibited and add others to a high-risk list, forcing certain obligations on the tech’s creators.

Earlier this week, US president Joe Biden signed an executive order to create AI safeguards and lead the global push to regulate AI.

“One thing is clear: To realise the promise of AI and avoid the risks, we need to govern this technology,” Biden said. “There’s no other way around it, in my view. It must be governed.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic