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How Supercomputers Are Shaping the Future of Humanity

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Supercomputers Are Shaping Future of Humanity

Humanity has come a long way. Our world today is full of technology and wonders we thought were the realm of science fiction not too long ago.

Our technological development is exponential. It was just a few hundred years ago that we started exploring the possibilities of electricity, and it didn't become common in households till the early 20th century. Just a few decades later, we sent astronauts to the moon.

Yet even with all the progress we've made, we still have serious issues we haven't been able to address: world hunger, the lack of clean drinking water for everyone, diseases like cancer, and natural disasters that take lives and destroy food supplies.

But we're approaching an era where technology may be able to help solve these problems, using supercomputers.

Supercomputers are massively powerful and incredibly expensive computers. They use massive amounts of energy, take up a huge amount of space, and require thousands of gallons of water every minute to regulate their temperatures. A supercomputer is typically developed for a single purpose, and often requires special customized software in order to do its job.

Supercomputers have been around for a long time. The first supercomputer, the CDC 6600, was developed in 1964 and used to analyze various experiments conducted at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The CDC 6600 was the world's fastest computer from 1964 to 1969.

Since that time, supercomputers have been used for things like weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling, cryptanalysis, and more.

And in the near future, they may be put to work to surmount those seemingly unsolvable problems: helping to develop sustainable systems like extracting drinkable water from different sources, more accurately predicting the weather so we can save lives and optimize our agriculture to grow more food, and even developing individualized medical treatments.

What exactly are supercomputers, how do they work, and how will they change our future? Check out the graphic below to find out.


How Supercomputers Are Shaping the Future of Humanity

Imagine forecasting weather so precisely you could save lives from flash floods, or mapping out DNA and tiny genetic differences to adjust medications to save a child's life. These are some of the complex issues that scientists are beginning to tackle with the help of modern supercomputers.

Characteristics of a Supercomputer

  • Powerful
    • Funnels capacity into a few programs as quickly as possible
    • Power measured in massive numbers
      • FLOPS — FLoating-point Operations Per Second
      • Teraflops
        • One trillion operations every second
        • 10 to the 12th power (1012)
          • 1,000,000,000,000
      • Petaflops
        • One quadrillion calculations every second
        • 10 to the 15th power (1015)
          • About 200,000 times faster than a standard personal computer
      • Exascale
        • 1,000 times faster than a petaflop
  • Expensive
    • Hundreds of millions of dollars
    • Jaguar, 3rd fastest supercomputer
      • $104 million to install
      • $1 million annually to run
      • $10 million annual cost for technicians
  • Built for specific applications
    • Animating graphics
    • Massive calculations of mathematical data
    • Nuclear research
    • General Circulation Models of the Earth's climate
  • Made up of tens of thousands of computing nodes
    • CPUs
      • Central Processing Units
      • Brainpower for a computer
      • Personal computers generally have one CPU
    • GPUs
      • Graphics Processing Units
      • Most often applied to 3D graphics
  • Most controlled by Linux software
    • Open-source operating system
    • Runs 485 of the top 500 supercomputers in the world
  • Water cooled
    • Reduces energy consumption from hot CPUs
    • Cooler systems run faster

Evolution of the Supercomputer

  • CDC 6600 - first supercomputer
    • Released: 1964
    • Speed: 3 megaflops
      • 10x faster than any other computer at the time
    • First successful supercomputer
      • Built by Control Data Corporation
        • Designed by Seymour Cray, who would go on to found Cray Research
      • A single CPU
        • 40MHz
      • Cost $8 million, sold for $60 million
  • Cray 2
    • Released: 1985
    • Speed: 1.9 gigaflops
      • Twice as fast as the previous Cray X-MP
    • Fastest computer in the world
      • Remained fastest for over 5 years
      • Had 8 CPUs
      • Was as fast as an iPad 2 — released in 2011
  • Hitachi SR2201
    • Released: 1996
    • Speed: 600 gigaflops
    • One of the earliest massively parallel supercomputers
      • 2048 CPUs
  • NEC Earth Simulator
    • Released: 2002
    • Speed: 35 teraflops
    • Created for the Japanese government's "Earth Simulator Project"
      • Cost $900 million
      • Developed by:
        • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
        • Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute
        • Japan Marine Science and Technology Center
      • Built to run climate models
  • IBM Blue Gene/L
    • Released: 2007
    • Speed: 600 teraflops
    • Part of IBM's Blue Gene project
      • Started in 1999 with the goal of creating a massively parallel computer
        • $100 million funding
        • Initially a 5 year program
      • Blue Gene/L was the fast computer in the world for over 3 years
  • IBM Roadrunner
    • Released: 2009
    • Cost $130 million
    • Created for the the US-DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration
      • First hybrid supercomputer
        • Used different CPUs:
          • Dual-core Opteron
          • PowerXCell 8i
        • Software had to be written especially for it
      • First to reach over one petaflop

Today's Supercomputer Environment

  • The world of supercomputers is constantly changing
  • TOP500 provides a list of most powerful supercomputers
    • Computers ranked by ability to solve sets of equations by the TOP500 project.
    • Countries with the most supercomputers
      • United States: 233
      • China: 76
      • Japan: 30
    • Fastest supercomputer as of June 2015
      • Tianhe-2 supercomputer
        • Released: 2013
        • Speed: 34 petaflops
          • Almost twice as fast as the second fastest computer, the Cray Titan
        • Developed by the National University of Defense Technology in Guangzhou, China

Coming Soon: World's Most Super Supercomputer

  • Japanese Fujitsu Exascale
  • Project called FLAGSHIP 2020
    • Meant to be the top supercomputer in the world
  • Planned to be operational by April 2021
  • Characteristics
    • Multi-core architecture
      • General-purpose CPUs
      • Network interfaces in CPU chips
      • Multidimensional torus network topology
        • A way of connecting the units to create a powerful and fast computing link between units
    • 1,000 petaflops (1 exaflop)
      • 1 quintillion calculations every second (1 followed by 18 zeros)
      • 30x faster than today's top supercomputers
  • How it might help save the world:
    • Earthquake and tsunami predictions
    • Global climate modeling
    • Development safer cars and better batteries
    • Better drug research
    • Research into new high-performance materials
    • Astronomical research with enhanced galaxy simulations

Supercomputer-Developed Drinking Water

  • Global water crisis
    • 98% of the world's water is undrinkable salt water
    • The growing population is straining freshwater sources
      • 15% of the world's population, 1.1 billion, does not have regular access to drinking water
    • Changes in climate patterns linked to global warming are causing draughts and floods, therefore displacing water resources
      • World's demand for water is estimated to be 40% higher than the global supply by 2030
    • Result: more and more people don't have drinkable water, and it'll only get worse
  • A team of scientists at Shinshu University are currently generating filtration simulations using Japan's current Fujitsu supercomputer
    • They are running models of water separation membranes using nano-carbon to convert undrinkable water to safe drinking water
      • Seawater and even oil-contaminated water could become usable
    • Fujitsu supercomputer analyzes water extraction systems
    • They're performing simulations — examining water down to the molecular level for the first time
    • They are researching membranes that are water permeable but also heat and chemical resistant
  • This might help save the world by:
    • Developing sustainable methods of extracting usable water from different sources
    • Providing safe water to millions of people around the world
      • Reducing the number of children who die from contaminated water
        • Currently over 2 million

Better Weather Forecasting

  • Weather forecasting is much more important than whether or not you will need an umbrella the next day
    • It's critical in agriculture for short and long term planning
    • It saves lives by giving warning of severe weather
    • It's even used in warfare
      • D-Day was postponed 24 hours based upon weather forecasts
  • The U.K. Met Office uses a Cray XC40 supercomputer for weather forecasting
    • UK government investing $150 million (£97 million)
    • In Exeter, Devon, running September 2015
      • Full capacity to be reached in 2017
    • 13x faster than previous forecasting system
      • 480,000 CPU cores
        • 30,000 individual CPUs
      • Processing at 16 petaflops
        • 16 quadrillion calculations per second
      • 17 petabytes of storage capacity
        • 17 million gigabytes
      • Weighs 140 tons
    • Improved work
      • Faster forecasts: every hour instead of every three hours
      • More detailed models can be run for sensitive areas like airports
      • Improved climate projections
  • This might help save the world by:
    • Providing better flood warnings
    • Reducing air travel disruptions
    • Allowing for better climate change planning
      • Over $3 billion is expected to be saved in the U.K. alone

Genomic Medical Research

  • Genomic testing is an extremely important part of medicine
    • It's used to diagnose diseases
    • Carrier tests can determine the likelihood of parents passing on a disease to their children
    • Prenatal and newborn testing for future diseases
  • Phoenix Children's Hospital is getting a supercomputer designed by cancer researcher Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
    • It's only the 4th hospital to implement a supercomputer system
    • It will be used for genomic testing
      • Hospital physicians suggest most chronic diseases in children are linked to genetics
    • It will support research for chronic diseases in children
      • Congenital heart problems
      • Cancer
    • It is expected to improve research capabilities at the hospital
      • Research is currently done off-site, causing up to three months of waiting — also costing millions
      • On-site supercomputer should:
        • Cut wait time to 7 days
        • Reduce the cost of testing
        • Improve treatment options
  • This might help save the world by:
    • Finding highly individualized treatments to address each person's risks and provide better preventative care

As the computational problems have become more complicated, supercomputers have always risen to the challenge — becoming ever more powerful. And they are more and more necessary to address the real world problems we face in medicine, the environment, and much else.

Sources: webopedia.com, extremetech.com, techtarget.com, top500.org, itworld.com, bbc.co.uk, cronkitenewsonline.com, zdnet.com, fujitsu.com, pcworld.com, hpcwire.com, ibm.com


KeriLynn Engel

About KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn has worked as a freelance writer for various websites. She is an advocate for domestic abuse victims and has way too many hobbies.


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