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Not so fast, China. The United States just won back bragging rights in the global supercomputer race.

For the past five years, China has had the world's fastest computer, a striking symbolic achievement that highlighted the nation's high-tech ambitions and progress.

But the United States has regained the lead thanks to a new supercomputer built for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by IBM in a partnership with Nvidia. The speedy performance of the machine, called Summit, was announced Friday.

"We're seeing the U.S. back on top again," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who tracks supercomputer speeds and rankings.

The Chinese government's aggressive push to become the leader in technologies like artificial intelligence, microchips and cellular networks has ignited a rivalry with the United States, the traditional front-runner in the digital realm. For years, American companies have accused China of stealing their intellectual property, and lawmakers have said that some Chinese companies, including ZTE and Huawei, pose a national security risk.

The Summit computer, which cost $200 million to build, is not just fast -- it is also at the forefront of a new generation of supercomputers that embrace technologies at the center of the friction between the United States and China. The machines are adding artificial intelligence and the ability to handle vast amounts of data to traditional supercomputer technology to tackle the most daunting computing challenges in science, industry and national security.

The numbers used to describe supercomputer speeds are, well, super -- as beyond human comprehension as the machines' performance is beyond human capability.

Summit can do mathematical calculations at the rate of 200 quadrillion per second, or 200 petaflops. A person doing one calculation a second would have to live for more than 63 billion years to match what the machine can do in a second.

Stupefying? Dongarra offered another analogy: The University of Tennessee football stadium seats about 100,000 people. If it was full, and everyone in it had a modern laptop, it would take 20 stadiums full of similarly equipped people to match the computing firepower of the Summit.

Supercomputers now perform tasks that include simulating nuclear tests, predicting climate trends, finding oil deposits and cracking encryption codes. Scientists say that further gains and fresh discoveries in fields like medicine, new materials and energy technology will rely on the approach that Summit embodies.

"These are big data and artificial intelligence machines," said John E. Kelly, who oversees IBM Research. "That's where the future lies."

The global supercomputer rankings have been compiled for more than two decades by a small team of computer scientists, led by Dongarra, who put together a Top 500 list. The newest list will not be released until later this month, but Dongarra said he had no doubt the new machine is the fastest.

At 200 petaflops, Summit achieves more than twice the speed of the leading supercomputer in use last November, when the last Top 500 list was published. That machine is at China's National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi.

Summit is made up of rows of black, refrigerator-size units that weigh a total of 340 tons and are housed in a 9,250 square-foot room. The machine is powered by 9,216 central processing chips and 27,648 graphics processors that are lashed together with 185 miles of fiber-optic cable.

Cooling Summit requires 4,000 gallons of water a minute, and the supercomputer consumes enough electricity to light up 8,100 American homes.

While impressive, Summit can be seen as a placeholder. Supercomputers that are five times faster -- 1,000 petaflops, or an exaflop -- are in the works. The Energy Department last month closed the window for bids on three such so-called exascale supercomputers to be built over the next three years. There have been cuts elsewhere in the department, but the budget for its advanced computing program is being increased by 39 percent in the two fiscal years ending September 2019, said Paul Dabarr, the Energy Department's undersecretary for science.

"We're doing this to help drive innovation in supercomputing and beyond," Dabarr said.

Yet China, Japan and Europe all have exascale projects underway. The U.S. lead, scientists say, could be short-lived.

At Oak Ridge, Thomas Zacharia, the lab director, cites a large health research project as an example of the future of supercomputing. Summit has begun ingesting and processing data generated by the Million Veteran Program. Begun in 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs project is enlisting volunteers to give researchers access to all of their health records, contribute blood tests for genetic analysis, and answer survey questions about their lifestyles and habits. To date, 675,000 veterans have joined; the goal is to reach 1 million by 2021.

The eventual insights, Zacharia said, could "help us find new ways to treat our veterans and contribute to the whole area of precision medicine."

Business on 06/09/2018

Print Headline: U.S. gets speediest computer

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