The supercomputer race .. the United States rushes to overtake China

The United States is at the forefront of a new era of supercomputers, with a decade-long leap in processing power that will have a major impact in areas ranging from climate change research to nuclear weapons testing.
But the national pride that drives such discoveries is likely to be silenced. China has passed that milestone first and is already well on its way to building a whole generation of advanced supercomputers that will survive anything else used elsewhere.
What makes the progress remarkable, according to U.S. experts in the field, is that China’s performance was done with native technology, after Washington blocked access to U.S. hardware that has long been considered essential to such systems.
Jack Dongara, a US supercomputer expert, said the backlog of China’s supercomputer software, which dates back more than two decades, had led to an “astonishing situation” and the country was now leading the world.
More advanced supercomputers are being used to improve simulations of highly complex systems, for example to create better models of climate change or the effects of nuclear explosions. But their secret use in areas such as defeating cryptography is likely to make them key instruments in national security as well, according to Nicholas Higham, a professor of mathematics at the University of Manchester.
In the list of the world’s 500 best computers, China actually has more computers than any other country: 186 compared to 123 for the United States. Now, by beating the United States to make the next big breakthrough in the field and planning a series of these machines, it’s in a position to seize the lead in computers for years to come.
The Chinese breakthrough and progress in the race came with the construction of so-called exascale supercomputers, systems that can handle 10 to 18 calculations per second. This makes it a thousand times faster than the first petaflop systems that preceded it more than a decade ago.
In recent months, work has been underway at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to assemble and test the first three planned exascale systems in the United States. If the inevitable “mistakes” are addressed, exascale computers could be confirmed in the U.S. by the end of May, with the biennial top 500 list published, according to Dongara, who maintains the list.
In contrast, the first Exascale went live in China more than a year ago and has since joined a second system, according to a recent presentation by David Kahaner, director of the Asian Technology Information Program, whose research is widely cited as the most reliable.
China has not officially announced that it has two Exascale systems. But its existence was confirmed late last year when scientific research using machines was entered for the Jordan Bell Prize, with one paper achieving top honors in an international supercomputer competition.
Horst Simon, who until recently was deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy, said a country with the most advanced supercomputers has a clear advantage in national defense over its opponents.
China’s decision not to formally confirm its discovery in the field of supercomputers is a departure from a decades-old tradition in which scientists often talk openly about their achievements and countries quickly claim bragging rights to the best machines. The secrecy may have been necessary to prevent further retaliation by the United States, according to experts.
Washington imposed targeted sanctions on five Chinese supercomputer organizations in 2019, followed a year ago by another round against seven other groups. The second wave of sanctions was taken a month after the first Exascale system was launched in China.
Previous Chinese efforts to break the barrier have relied on technology from US chipmaker AMD, making it vulnerable to US trade restrictions. In contrast, current Exascale systems are based on native chip designs. Domestic developers of the chips used in the two new giants – Tianjin Vitium Information Technology and the Shanghai Center for High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design – were on the US sanctions list last year.
“I think it’s quite impressive that in a very short period of time they were able to put together a system based on their technology,” Dongara said. It is unclear, he added, whether the chips were made in mainland China – which is still years behind the world’s most advanced chips – or in Taiwan.
China worked for years to build a domestic industry around supercomputers, which shocked its main competitors in the United States and Japan in 2000 when it unveiled what was then the world’s fastest machine. But the dawn of the era of exascal computing may be an opportunity to seize clearer progress.
While the United States has three exascale systems under construction, China’s goal is to have ten by 2025, according to Kahaner. Research by the Director of the Asian Technology Information Program shows that Chinese companies now focus more on domestic competition than on what their international competitors do. With a rift opening between the two countries, the United States should consider easing its sanctions against China’s leading national supercomputer center in Wuxi in hopes of “taking a deeper look at these Chinese regimes,” Kahaner said.
Despite China’s leadership in hardware, Kahaner and others point to the breadth of American capabilities as a strength, especially when it comes to software. Half of the $ 3.2 billion cost of the U.S. Department of Energy’s three exascal computers stems from a 10-year effort to write programs that run on the new computer architecture. Higham also said that Chinese research on advanced mathematics rarely appears in areas related to supercomputers.
Regarding his call for greater cooperation between China and the United States, Kahaner said: “Access to new systems allows for experimentation, which is beneficial to all parties (…) in line with security and fair and balanced competition to the to the greatest extent possible. “
But with China not publicly acknowledging its newfound supercomputer prowess, and the United States continuing to push for sanctions to try to stem its rise as a technological power, it may remain a distant prospect.

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