The Superpowers of Supercomputers

With great computing power comes great possibilities. That's what supercomputers offer society, according to Jean-Christophe Desplat, director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC), Ireland's supercomputing headquarters. In fact, supercomputers could improve medical research and practice by such an impressive degree that it could boost human life expectancy by five to 10 years.

Think of the best general-purpose computer you know — maybe something you use for gaming or video editing. Now, imagine that computer multiplied several times and put together as one collective computer. That's essentially what a supercomputer is. Instead of operating on million instructions per second (MIPS) like ordinary computers do, a supercomputer's performance is measured in floating-point operations per second (FLOPS). It's capable of fast and high-level computing performance, which enables it to do complex computing tasks, like nuclear research or weather pattern forecasting — which is what one supercomputer in India is doing.

Supercomputers have been around for a while; the world's  first supercomputer was developed in the 1960s, and the technology has only evolved since. Presently, the world's fastest supercomputer is the Sunway TaihuLight in China. It's packed with 10.65 million linked processors — or cores — which makes it able to do about 100 petaFLOPS (one thousand million million FLOPS). In Iceland, the fastest supercomputer is called Fionn. It has about 8,200 processor cores, giving it a performance capacity of 147 million million FLOPS.

Improving Research

With these capabilities, supercomputers can do a lot for research. For Desplat, they are and will continue to be, particularly useful in medicine. Supercomputers can run "deep artificial intelligence learning," capable of improving personalized medical care that uses advances in genetics. Examples of these AI systems contributing to medical research include IBM's Watson and Google's DeepMind. Though, many of  these systems are using conventional computing, and could be significantly improved by supercomputers in a not too distant future, according to Desplat. These improvements would allow them to deliver faster and more accurate diagnoses.

Indeed, supercomputers can be used in other fields of academic research, too: “We see the impact on the ground,” said ICHEC data analyst and public sector liaison Emma Hogan. One particularly useful application is climate modeling. Predicting weather patterns more accurately aids in preparation for potential disasters, but also in the development of infrastructure. In Ireland's case, for example, its helped identify areas that are at risk for flooding, and also assisted in identify the best areas for wind turbine installation.

Supercomputers aren't the only advanced computational tools available for research. Pretty soon, quantum computers will be contributing their own fair share. If supercomputers are considered highly capable than quantum computers operate on a completely different level. Either way, research — medical, climate-related or otherwise, will gladly take any computational help it can get.

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