Expert: Loss of U.S. Supercomputing Edge to China 'Worrying'
Photo: Randy Montoya
SHREVEPORT, La. — A recent list showing the United States losing out to China on the ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers has one former national security scientist concerned.
“It is almost like a canary in the mine type of situation,” said Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, chief scientist and executive director of Discovery Park at Purdue University. “China has been very aggressive on this end of high performance computing.” And that is “worrying,” he added.
The list — compiled by TOP500.org — shows huge gains by China over the last six months. The previous list had the United States leading China with 169 of the world’s fastest computers and China with 160. A half year later, China has 202 of the top 500 supercomputers while the United States has only 143. China has the two fastest computers in the world, with Switzerland holding the third spot, Japan the fourth, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Titan — a five-year-old computer — coming in fifth.
Supercomputers have many wide ranging applications, but one of their most important roles is supporting the nuclear deterrent, said De la Rubia, the former chief research officer at the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he helped develop and test the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “I think that is why countries such as China are advancing so fast in this space,” he told National Defense at the Air Force Global Strike Command Innovation and Technology Symposium sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.
All is not lost, he said at the event in Shreveport, Louisiana. “It is not just the computer that you need to do the work that is needed, you need the people. And I still believe that we have a massive advantage in terms of knowledge, history, capability, talent and strength in terms of the people.” That human talent comes out of research universities, which are still the best in the world, he noted.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department and Congress in a bipartisan way are making the investments to ensure the U.S. returns to its preeminent position in supercomputing, he said. However, he noted that “the pace of innovation is so fast that to stay in front, you have got to run much faster that you ever did before.”
China has also stated that it plans to be the number one country in artificial intelligence and machine learning within three years, he noted. “We have an advantage here. We are still ahead. But we can see the adversaries in the rearview mirror. They are right there and they are making big pushes in this direction.”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning advances in the United States are mostly occurring in the private sector, he noted. There needs to be an industrial-academic-government alliances to keep pace with rapid change in fields such as quantum computing. Such ecosystems have served the U.S. well in the past as it did in the Cold War era. “We need to build on that model,” he added.
The Defense Department has to maintain an edge in computing technologies because this is the future of warfare, he said. Humans interfacing with machines in future battles will have an advantage over humans acting alone, he said.
As far as supercomputers, no one could match the United States for decades. Now the question becomes with quantum computers, “Who is going to get there first?” he asked.
“We have to be very vigilant and never believe again that we have decades of offsets and time to come up with these technologies,” he said.