Spy agency, DOE, see China nearing supercomputing leadership

Spy agency, DOE, see China nearing supercomputing leadership

Advanced computing experts at the National Security Agency and the Department of Energy are warning that China is "extremely likely" to take leadership in supercomputing as early as 2020, unless the U.S. acts quickly to increase spending.

China's supercomputing advances are not only putting national security at risk, but also U.S. leadership in high-tech manufacturing. If China succeeds, it may "undermine profitable parts of the U.S. economy," according to a report titled U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing by HPC technical experts at the NSA, the DOE, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

"To maintain U.S. leadership in HPC," the report says, "a surge" of U.S. "investment and action is needed to address HPC priorities."

Concern about China's technical advances have been raised before by U.S. scientists and industry groups, but never in such striking terms -- or by representatives of a spy agency.

The report stems from a workshop held in September that was attended by 60 people, many scientists, 40 of whom work in government, with the balance representing industry and academia. The report, which summarizes that meeting, was just posted online.

The threat from China is so acute that "absent aggressive action by the U.S. -- the U.S. will lose leadership and not control its own future in HPC," the report states. 

Indeed, the report says that "assuming status quo conditions, the meeting participants believe that a change in HPC leadership was extremely likely, with only minor disagreement on the timescale; many suggested that China would be leading the U.S. as early as 2020."

China supercomputing systems have been leading the Top 500 list, the global ranking of supercomputers, for several years. But that's not a measure of supercomputing leadership alone.

One workshop attendee, Paul Messina, a computer scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Labs and the head of its Exascale Computing Project, sketched out the HPC leadership criteria: It means leadership in producing and using systems, as well as "first mover advantage." It also means staying in the lead at all times. The U.S. needs to control its HPC destiny and "can't depend on other countries to sell us what we need," he said in an email.

Something to keep in mind is that this report was written at a time when many assumed that supercomputing funding was not under threat. The report calls for more spending while the Trump administration, along with the Republican-controlled Congress, is planning major cuts in the federal budget.

"National security requires the best computing available, and loss of leadership in HPC will severely compromise our national security," the report says. "Loss of leadership in HPC could significantly reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrence and the sophistication of our future weapons systems."

Among those at the meeting was Barry Bolding, a senior vice president and chief strategy officer at supercomputer company Cray. "I will say from Cray's view, [the report] accurately reflects the discussion of the workshop and mostly accurately reflects some of our primary concerns regarding HPC competitiveness."

Steve Conway, an HPC analyst and research vice president at Hyperion Research, said the meeting "and report are important for alerting the U.S. HPC community, especially government officials, to the dangers of taking U.S. HPC leadership for granted when other nations, particularly China, are intent on seizing global leadership of the market for supercomputers."

The report makes three overarching observations about China's Sunway TaihuLight system, which at 93 petaflops, is ranked first on the Top500 list of supercomputers.

The TaihuLight supercomputer is "homegrown," and includes processors that were designed and fabricated in China. The Chinese chip design "includes architectural innovations," and was designed using "a true co-design approach" where the applications are tuned to take advantage of the chip design, the report said.

The machine "is not a stunt," the report notes, meaning China didn't develop this system for bragging rights. The machine "is being used for cutting edge research," and three of the six finalists for the Gordon Bell Prize, the top research award in HPC, were the result of Chinese efforts.

The report offers something particularly insightful about China's motivations.

"Meeting participants, especially those from industry, noted that it can be easy for Americans to draw the wrong conclusions about what HPC investments by China mean – without considering China's motivations," the report states.

"These participants stressed that their personal interactions with Chinese researchers and at supercomputing centers showed a mindset where computing is first and foremost a strategic capability for improving the country; for pulling a billion people out of poverty; for supporting companies that are looking to build better products, or bridges, or rail networks; for transitioning away from a role as a low-cost manufacturer for the world; for enabling the economy to move from 'Made in China' to 'Made by China,' " the report states.

But it also pointed out that the computer codes developed for industry, "are good proxies for the tools needed to design many different weapons systems."

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