Supercomputers help build nuclear weapons, design aerospace engines, and produce lifesaving drugs. For years, the U.S. had the best and biggest arsenal. Until China got in the game.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is one of the great symbols of America’s scientific and military prowess. For six decades, here on this tranquil campus tucked away in the hill country east of San Francisco, where scientists stroll along leafy paths and zip to meetings on bicycles, huge breakthroughs have been made, like the discovery of a half-dozen elements on the periodic table and the detection of a key component of dark matter.
Livermore’s biggest claim to fame involves designing the world’s most advanced nuclear warheads—this was the mission of the lab when it was created in 1952 by Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. To do this, Livermore relies on powerful machines called supercomputers, which hum away inside top-secret, heavily guarded buildings. The U.S. has long dominated the industry. Which is what made the news that Bruce Goodwin, head of the lab’s weapons program, received last November all the more momentous: the Chinese had unveiled the world’s most powerful supercomputer, a machine five times more powerful than Livermore’s biggest computer.
To most of us, this might sound like no big deal, akin to Apple coming out with a faster smartphone than Microsoft. But to the scientists, industry titans, and world leaders who understand how delicate America’s position as a global superpower really is, this was a Sputnik moment. Only this time, it wasn’t Russia trouncing the U.S. in the space race, but China surging ahead in one of the most vital areas of national security. By running thousands of processors in parallel, supercomputers not only help design weapons systems, they also model climate change, crack codes, and help develop new and life-changing drugs. Cranking out 500 trillion operations per second, just one of Livermore’s supercomputers throws off so much heat that if the air-conditioning system were to fail, the computer would start to melt within minutes.
Globally, high-performance computing is a $25.6 billion industry, and whoever holds the lead in the field gains huge economic and military advantages. Or put another way, if the U.S. falls behind in supercomputing it could quickly lose its edge in all areas of science, in industries like oil and gas exploration and pharmaceutical research, and in security and military fields. In the race to develop the most powerful computers, both our economic prosperity and our national security are on the line.
When China flipped the switch on the Tianhe-1A, also called the "Milky Way" supercomputer, last fall, it placed itself at the top of the technology world with a stunning demonstration of its newfound engineering prowess. The Chinese grip on the top spot turned out to be short-lived, since six months later, a team in Japan announced an even bigger supercomputer that bumped Tianhe-1A into second place. Nevertheless, the Chinese had made their point, demonstrating to the world that when it comes to developing the newest, biggest, fastest machines, the inconvenient truth is that China, our No. 1 military and political rival, now runs neck and neck with the U.S. in a field that for decades the U.S. dominated. Experts predict China will soon leapfrog Japan again. Already, it has 74 of the 500 biggest supercomputers in the world, up from zero a decade ago and second only to the U.S., which has 263. And while the U.S. struggles to fund new development, China seems to have limitless resources to pursue its ambitious goals. 'We’re scared," says Dona Crawford, who runs computing at Livermore. "This technology is fundamental for our national security, and for our economic competitiveness. Are we really going to let this slip away? Yeah, we’re scared."
But they’re not bowing out. The Livermore team is now designing an enormous new supercomputer that will yoke together more than a million microprocessors and produce eight times the power of the Tianhe-1A. Built by IBM and code-named Sequoia, it’s scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012. The official cost of the project is undisclosed, but it certainly will soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with Livermore putting up $200 million and IBM contributing untold millions more. It’s a huge and risky bet, even more so in these perilous economic times.
China’s emergence as a supercomputing superpower should not have come as a surprise. They’ve been talking about this for 20 years. ÒIt’s just that nobody believed them," says Wu Feng, a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech. "Now it’s like a freight train. It’s coming on so fast, and a lot of people are worried."