New U.S. supercomputer will double speed of current record holder

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has a new supercomputer and it’s twice as fast as the current record holder in China.

International Business Machines Corp. developed the Summit computer, with help from Nvidia Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The system cost about $200 million to build, will occupy a warehouse the size of two tennis courts and be put to work on super-complex calculations that could lead to breakthroughs in fields from astrophysics to cancer research, the lab said in a statement Friday.

Summit also brings the title of world’s fastest computer back to the U.S. It comes as the race between America and China for technological supremacy is being taken more seriously by U.S. lawmakers, who are concerned about the billions China is spending on artificial intelligence and quantum computing. U.S. President Donald Trump has taken an aggressive tone toward China, blocking the takeover of chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. on national security grounds and accusing China of stealing U.S. trade secrets.

“There is a direct correlation between leadership in this area and national security implications,” said Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Every country recognizes that being a leader in this field has downstream impact.”

Summit operates at a speed of 200,000 trillion calculations per second -- or 200 petaflops in computer science lingo. That’s more than twice as fast as the current record holder, the Sunway TaihuLight at the National Super Computer Center in Guangzhou, China, which runs at 93 petaflops. The third-fastest machine is also in China, operating at 33.8 petaflops.

IBM and Nvidia found ways to make the machine much faster, while only needing 30 percent more power than previous systems, Zacharia said. Still, Summit needs the same amount of power it takes to serve a small town.

“There was a time when we thought a machine of this caliber would require a nuclear reactor right next to it to run it,” he said.

The computer will use artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning, which allows software to pull out insights from large data sets, to try and solve problems that have stymied previous systems. Summit will speed up projects that require modeling massive events with trillions of possible outcomes, like the physics of supernova implosions, or how climate change is affecting weather patterns.

The machine will also work on simulating new materials for superconductors that will allow computers to run more efficiently and at lower temperatures, as well as looking at mitochondria in cells to develop early-warning tests for genetic diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, said Ian Buck, Nvidia’s vice president and general manager of accelerated computing.

The Department of Energy officially controls the system and who gets to use it. Scientific projects will be chosen from open submissions, and eventually private companies will be able to pay to have special access, Zacharia said.

“These computers obviously offer those that have them the ability to innovate very, very quickly and have a competitive advantage,” said John Kelly, who oversees IBM’s artificial intelligence and research projects.

--With assistance from Ian King and Jeremy Kahn

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