Recently, a computer housed at the National Computing center in Tianjin, China, (see references below) ran through a series of tests that demonstrated that it could execute instructions at a rate of 2.5 petaflops per second, far faster than other computer on the planet, which would of course include the latest version of the American made Cray supercomputer, which have been the fastest computers for most of the time that supercomputers have existed.
This announcement has stirred up questions in this country as feelings have been aroused due to many believing that the United States is supposed to always be the fastest computer maker. It’s something that we have rightly been proud of; a sort of statement in fact, that clearly demonstrates our technological superiority over the rest of the world. But now that the title of world’s fastest computer maker belongs to someone else, some have suggested that it might mean the end of our technological dominance.
And it well might, as the number of computer scientists and other engineers we graduate each year continues to fall and as the numbers for other countries continues to climb.
But how did we get here? How did the Chinese build a computer that is nearly twice as fast as our fastest one?
In some respects, the answer is easy, research on supercomputing in this country is reliant on funding from the federal government, and that funding has been growing ever smaller as it seemed it was paying off fewer and fewer dividends and as budgets everywhere have grown tighter. Also, the number of people interested in working on and developing ever faster supercomputers has dwindled in this country as the financial rewards have decreased and so too has the acclaim that used to be a part of working on such a team. Thus, the fact that the Chinese have one-upped us, has come as no surprise to those in the scientific community.
Also, there is a little more to the story. One little item that you don’t see if you read just the headlines is that the basic components that the Chinese used to build their computer are made by Intel and Nvidia, both American companies. Also, little noted is that there has been a change in direction in supercomputing in that most of the more innovative groups are working on distributed or cloud type computing, which means making computers more like the human brain with neural type networks, which could mean supercomputers an order of magnitude faster and smarter than are the ones we have today. And in this respect, the United States is still the undisputed leader.
But as for the title of world’s fastest computer; the last time the U.S. lost the crown, to Japan, several years back, Congress gave our guys a big pile of cash and two year later we were back on top. So, it’s possible this new Chinese machine might be wearing that crown for just a little while.