President Barack Obama has issued an executive order for US computer scientists to build the fastest computer in the world by 2025. However, the US will continue to face stiff competition from China, which currently leads the way.
The National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI) is “designed to advance core technologies to solve difficult computational problems and foster increased use of the new capabilities in the public and private sectors,” according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In layman’s terms, this involves developing a supercomputer that is 20 times faster than the Tianhe-2 – built by China’s National University of Defense Technology.
Tianhe-2 has a speed of 33.86 petaflops. As one petaflop equals one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, that makes it almost double the speed of the fastest US computer right now – Titan.
A processing speed of one ‘exaflop’
The computer that Obama hopes the US can build, named an exascale computer, will work at a speed of one exaflop, or one quintillion (one billion billion) calculations per second. The possibilities of such a supercomputer would be vast. According to the NSCI office it could more accurately measure entire galaxies, predict weather precisely, help detect cancer from x-ray images, and aid the development of personalised medicines.
Mark Parsons from the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) believes Obama’s order is an attempt to compete with China and eventually become the dominant force in this field.
Speaking to the BBC, Parsons commented: “The US has woken up to the fact that if it wants to remain in the race it will have to invest.” However, it won’t be easy. The exascale computer will take many of the designated ten years to research and develop, with funding rocketing into the hundreds of millions.
“I’d say they’re targeting around 60 megawatts, I can’t imagine they’ll get below that,” Parsons said, referring to the electricity demands of such a project. “That’s at least £60 million a year just on your electricity bill.”