Earlier this week, the Summit supercomputer was dethroned as the fastest supercomputer in the world. Summit, housed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, held the top spot on the top500 list, an authoritative compilation of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, since its deployment in 2018. The Top500 is updated twice a year, a testament to the speed with which supercomputers are evolving and the intensity of the competition to stay ahead.
While “supercomputer” sounds cool, most Americans may ask: why does it matter? What does a supercomputer do that differentiates it from a fancy laptop? Supercomputers enable scientists to conduct research that would have been too costly, time consuming, or otherwise impossible without supercomputing technology. Because of their immense computing power, supercomputers are able to model complex phenomena, such as molecular interactions or weather events, to let researchers tackle greater and greater scientific challenges. For instance, early in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, ORNL’s Summit supercomputer was tapped to run simulations of over 8000 drug compounds to identify those most likely to prevent the virus from infecting host cells. What Summit was able to accomplish in a day or two would have taken months on a normal computer, and supercomputers like Summit are only getting faster.
Medical and pharmaceutical research is just one of the myriad arenas in which supercomputers are essential. The economic impact of high-performance computing (the type of computing performed by supercomputers) is immense because of its utility in industries ranging from the automotive industry to aerospace, from oil discovery to finance, just to name a few. Most significantly, supercomputing is also closely tied to our national security interests, as complex modeling and simulation are vital to the development of nearly every weapons system (such as nuclear weapons and missile defense), as well as to encryption technology.
The United States is far from the only nation that has recognized the importance of high-performance computing. As of 2019, China and the United States lead the world in supercomputing, with China owning 45.4 percent and the United States owning 21.8 percent of the supercomputers in the world. Japan, which just clinched the top spot for fastest supercomputer with its Fugaku system, is also a top player in the world of high performance computer. As in many other arenas, China and the U.S. have been locked in fierce competition for supercomputing supremacy. China infused its supercomputer infrastructure with a multibillion-dollar investment after Summit bumped its Sunway TaihuLight out of the No. 1 spot in 2018. In the United States, the Department of Energy has teamed up with chip designer AMD and manufacturer Cray to build Frontier, which is set to be the fastest super computer in the world when it comes online in 2021. The Trump administration also stood up for American supercomputing and our national security when the U.S. Department of Commerce barred several Chinese companies from buying U.S. parts and components for their supercomputers.
While Japan may currently occupy the top spot, the competition between the United States and China is the one to watch. Given the economic and national security implications of high-performance computing, falling behind China in this race is not an outcome the United States or the world can afford. It is incredibly important that we continue to support our American high-performance computing so that the United States can not only remain competitive but also continue to dominate the globe in our technical advancements and research capabilities.
Fleischmann represents Tennessee’s 3rd District.