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31 Jul 2015

The World’s Fastest Computer

The United States has plans to build the world's fastest computer, with President Obama recently signing an executive order as he announced the National Strategic Computing Initiative. China currently has the title, with the Tianhe-2 supercomputer beating America's Titan in 2013. If everything goes to plan, the new supercomputer will be 20 times faster than the current leading machine when it's completed in 2025. The order mentions implementations in medicine, climate science and aerospace, with national security also likely to benefit from the next generation of supercomputing power.

Development of the new computer will be a joint venture between the Defense and Energy Departments and National Science Foundation, with Obama's order promising both "economic competitiveness and scientific discovery". When completed, the new exascale computer will be capable of making one quintillion calculations per second, which is a billion billion calculations or one exaflop. This is vastly superior to the 33.86 petaflops currently performed by China's Tianhe-2, a machine that is already twice as fast as Titan, America's current leading machine.

The Tiahne-2 or TH-2 literally means Heavenriver-2, which can be translated as Milky Way 2. It has been the fastest computer in the world for the past three years, taking out the TOP500 list for June 2013, November 2013, June 2014, November 2014, and June 2015. The Sun Yat-sen University and Guangzhou district recently tried to double its computing power, with the US government rejecting Intel's application for a license to export the CPUs and co-processor boards needed for the upgrade.

While the United States are obviously concerned about China's leading role in the supercomputer race, the rejection of this license could actually provide a boost for China's own processor production industry. Even if America's new computer lives up to its initial hype, it will not be completed for another 10 years, a lifetime in information technology development. One of the major obstacles is to make the technology more power efficient, with the computer estimated to have an electricity bill of over US$100 million a year.

Other than Tiahne-2 and Titan, the world's other super fast computers include Sequoia in the United States, K-Computer in Japan, and Mira in the United States. Among other things, the new supercomputer will enable more accurate weather forecasts, enhanced climate modelling, better aircraft development, and more complex military simulations. There will also be a number of positive medical implications, with likely improvements to cancer diagnoses and X-ray analysis among other things.

According to Richard Kenway from the University of Edinburgh, this new computer will help scientists to develop a new era of personalised medicine. "Today, drugs are designed for the average human and they work OK for some people but not others... The real challenge in precision medicine is to move from designing average drugs to designing drugs for the individual because you can know their genome and their lifestyle."