Article by Nick Zotalis
Supercomputers are at the heart of the most cutting-edge scientific research of our time. They are computers that are the size of a basketball court and consume the same amount of electricity as a small town. They are used to solve extremely complex problems and simulate processes such as the folding of proteins, earthquakes, predicting climate change, high-end cybersecurity, and “testing” nuclear weapons.
For a sense of scale, a high-end desktop computer can, at its maximum, push out about 7 billion calculations in a second. These calculations are known as floating-point operations, and a floating-point operation in one second is commonly referred to as a “flop.” This means that high-end computers operate at roughly 7 billion flops, or 7 gigaflops. Almost all widely-used laptops and computers operate in the low gigaflop range.
The fastest computer in the world is located in Wuxi, China. It is called the Sunway Taihu Light, and it debuted last June. Costing 273 million U.S. dollars, it runs at a ridiculous average speed of 93 petaflops, or 93 quadrillion calculations per second. This is millions of times faster than the speed of a high-end desktop. While normal computers typically have processors with 4, 6, or 8 cores, the Taihu Light contains 10,649,600 cores. This monstrosity is by far the most powerful computer ever built, and it currently has four primary applications: advanced manufacturing, life sciences, earth system modeling and weather prediction, and big data analytics.
The Sunway Taihu Light is one of many such machines that have been constructed in China recently. The annual International Supercomputing Conference releases a list of the 500 most powerful computers in the world. In 2016, China for the first time had more computers on that list than the United States, with its 167 beating out the United States’ 165. The combined performance of all the machines in the top 500 is roughly 560 petaflops, and just the first and second placed machines on the list, both in China, account for 127 petaflops, or almost a quarter of the total. All this is remarkable, considering that just a decade ago China had a mere 28 computers in the list of the top 500.
Now, China’s National Supercomputer Centre has announced that it is planning to complete the first “exascale” prototype in the next few months, operating at the level of exaflops. An exaflop would be the level beyond petaflops, where an exaflop is equivalent to 1000 petaflops. This prototype will not be the final product, with the final version expected to come out by the end of 2018. One can only speculate as to the applications of a machine that can perform a billion calculations every single second. The U.S. Department of Energy is also planning to have an exascale computer ready, although by 2023, and explains some of these remarkable possibilities on its website.
The explosion of high-level computing in China is no accident. China has seen an unparalleled tech boom over the last few decades. As the country has opened itself up to the world, massive companies like Baidu, Tencent, and JD have become Chinese equivalents to Google, Yahoo!, and Amazon respectively. Young Chinese programmers are moving away from copying American products to creating new projects such as YY, a live streaming service based in Guangzhou, China that is moving into the online dating business. Not only that, but other sectors of the Chinese economy such as construction and agriculture are starting to incorporate data and the surge of the internet in exciting, innovative ways.
There is no doubt that China is on an upward trajectory in the modern age when it comes to technology. Supercomputers are some of the most important tools that are used in cutting-edge research around the world today. The race to construct the next generation of supercomputers is the modern-day space race, and so far, China is winning.
Feature Image Credit: Christiaan Colen