The US is in a hurry to catch up with China in a supercomputer race

The US is in a hurry to catch up with China in a supercomputer race

The United States is about to enter a new era of supercomputers, with a leap forward in computing power every ten years that will have a major impact on areas ranging from climate change research to nuclear weapons testing.

But the national boasting usually caused by such breakthroughs is likely to be dampened. China has overcome this milestone first and is already well on its way to building a whole generation of advanced supercomputers that go beyond anything else used so far.

What makes progress even more remarkable, according to US experts in the field, is that China’s success has been achieved with local technology after Washington blocked access to US hardware that had long been considered critical to such systems.

The rise of China’s supercomputer program, which dates back more than two decades, has led to a “stunning situation” where the country is now leading the world, said Jack Dongarra, an American supercomputer expert.

The most advanced supercomputers are used to improve simulations of highly complex systems, such as creating better models of climate change or the effects of nuclear explosions. But their secret use in secret areas, such as defeating encryption, is also likely to make them key tools in national security, says Nicholas Higham, a professor of mathematics at the University of Manchester.

China already had more supercomputers on the list of the world’s 500 most powerful computers than any other country – 186 compared to 123 in the United States. Now that he has defeated the United States to another major breakthrough in the field and planned a number of such machines, he is in a position to seize the high standards of computing for years to come.

The Chinese breakthrough came in the race to build so-called exascale supercomputers, systems that can handle 10 to 18 calculations per second. As a result, they are thousands of times faster than the first petaflop systems that preceded them more than a decade ago.

In recent months, work has been underway at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to build and test the first of three exascale systems planned in the country. If the inevitable “mistakes” are removed, the arrival of exascale computing in the US could be confirmed at the end of May by publishing the Top 500 twice a year, according to Dongarr, who manages the list.

In contrast, China’s first exascale system has been in operation for more than a year, and has since been joined by a second, according to a recent presentation by David Kahaner, director of the Asian Technology Information Program, whose research is widely regarded as the most widely recognized. .

China has not officially revealed that it has two exascale systems. But their existence was confirmed at the end of last year, when the scientific research carried out on these machines was entered in the Gordon Bell Award, with one article winning the highest award in the international supercomputer competition.

The country with the most advanced supercomputers has a clear advantage in national defense over its opponents, said Horst Simon, who until recently was Deputy Director of the National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley.

China’s decision not to officially confirm its breakthrough in supercomputers is a departure from a decade of history in the field, where scientists have usually spoken openly about their successes and countries have quickly boasted of their cutting-edge machines. According to experts, the secrecy could have prevented further retaliation by the USA.

Washington imposed targeted sanctions on five Chinese supercomputer organizations in 2019, followed by another seven groups a year ago. The second wave was launched a month after the first Chinese exascale system was launched.

China’s previous efforts to break the exascale barrier relied on technology from US chip maker AMD, making it vulnerable to US trade restrictions. In contrast, its current two exascale systems are based on domestic chip designs. Local chip developers used in two giant new systems – Tianjin Phytium Information Technology and Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center – were both on last year’s US sanctions list.

“I think it’s quite impressive that they were able to implement a system based on their own technology in a very short time,” Dongarra said. He added that it was not clear whether the chips were made in mainland China – which is still years behind the most advanced chip factories in the world – or Taiwan.

China has been building domestic supercomputer industries for years, first shocking its major rivals in the United States and Japan in 2000, when it unveiled the world’s fastest machine. But the dawn of the exascale computing era could be a chance to gain clearer leadership.

While the United States has three exascale systems at work, China’s goal is to have 10 systems by 2025, Kahaner said. His research shows that Chinese companies are now focusing more on domestic competition than what their international rivals are doing. As a gap opens up between the two nations, the United States should consider easing its sanctions against China’s leading national supercomputing center in Wuxi, in the hope that “they will look deeper into these areas.” [Chinese] systems, ”says Kahaner.

Despite China’s leadership in hardware, Kahaner and others point to the breadth of US capabilities as a strength, especially when it comes to software. Half of the $ 3.2 billion cost of the US Department of Energy’s three exascale computers comes from a decade-long effort to write programs that would run on a new computing architecture. Also, Chinese research in advanced mathematics rarely appears in areas related to supercomputers, Higham said.

Speaking on greater cooperation between China and the United States, Kahaner said: “Access to new systems allows for experimentation that benefits all parties. As far as possible, in line with security and fair / balanced competition, greater access is better. “

But with China not yet publicly acknowledging its new supercomputer capabilities and the US still urging sanctions against China to try to limit its rise as a technological powerhouse, it may remain a distant hope.

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