In June 2016, news broke that China had developed the world’s fastest supercomputer. Called the Tianhe-1A, it was described as capable of performing over 2.5 thousand trillion operations a second. Supercomputers are not only equipped with plenty of processing power but they are also physically large. This monster weighed in at 150 tonnes and enjoyed a storage capacity equivalent to 100 million books.
As befits supercomputers, numbers loom large. Newspaper reports and technical magazine analysis tend to concentrate on calculations per second, speed and size. But there is another aspect that deserves equal billing. When American and European news stories focus on Chinese scientific and technical achievements, they tend to frame it in geopolitically alarmist terms. It is not uncommon to read a story about a technological achievement with an accompanying image of a Chinese soldier or a map of a contested area such as the South China Sea. Alternatively, the story is contextualised with reference to grand geopolitical scheming such as the One Belt, One Road initiative.
If we were looking for a parallel, one might point to the geopolitical framing of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. American media organisations often reported on examples of Japanese technical superiority and their deleterious consequences for American hegemonic power. In the early 1990s, stories abounded about Japanese capabilities in fighter jet development and production. In a curious way, the 1988 Hollywood blockbuster Die Hard captured the mood of geopolitical ambivalence. An LA cop fighting a group of East German terrorists occupying a large corporate building owned by a multinational Japanese company.
Fast forward two decades, the geopolitical mood music is much changed. Now the talk of the town is Chinese geopolitical and technological power. Interestingly, Chinese investment is making its presence in Hollywood and films such as The Martian suggest, implausibly, as critics noted, that the two countries could contribute in space exploration. Supercomputers are being put to use in the movie industry, and the low-budget 2016 film Morgan attracted interest when it was announced that the trailer was produced by the IBM supercomputer Watson.
2016 was a watershed year as China claimed top spot in the league for supercomputers. Of the top 500, China enjoyed 202 supercomputers compared to 143 for the US. China’s ascent in the supercomputer stakes could in part be down to the fact that the US has decided to concentrate its efforts on quantum computing. If successfully developed, this innovative strand promises to revolutionise the manner in which data is stored. But there is a great deal of basic, yet expensive, research that remains to be undertaken, so US investment in this area is a longer-term prospect with corresponding national security fears about China not enjoying access to this research.
As a dual-use technology, supercomputers can play a role in civilian and military applications. As such, in 2015 the Obama administration blocked an Intel sale of semi-conductors to China because of worries it might use them to further nuclear weapon development.
In June this year, newspapers such as the New York Times reported that the US had reclaimed bragging rights to the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It resides in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Built by IBM, Summit, occupies an area around 500 square metres in size and consumes a mind-blowing 15,000 litres of water per minute. Water plays a key role in the cooling of supercomputers and plenty of heat is generated as around 200 quadrillion calculations per second are performed. Summit is a million times quicker than a laptop and about twice as fast as the leading Chinese model.
Unsurprisingly, US newspapers were swift to declare this a technological triumph. So much of American geopolitical power pivots around military and civil dominance in matters scientific and technical. Supercomputing contributes to avant-garde machine and deep learning. It enables companies such as Facebook and Google to develop further innovations in their customer-focusing services and government-led research and development, including in areas of clean energy, nuclear science, natural disaster management and health provision. And with technological dominance comes market penetration and networks of dependency. Put bluntly, America can decide who, where and what it sells. China has, paradoxically, been incentivised to develop its own supply chain because of US computer processing trade blocks.
The top 500 list of supercomputers reaffirms the dominance of China, one not likely to be toppled any time soon despite the US’ best efforts. By 2020, it is quite likely that China will have unveiled a new supercomputer, the Tianhe-3, while in 2021 it is thought that the US will have developed a new model called Cray/Intel Aurora A21. While it may not be an arms race, there is no doubt that supercomputers will continue transforming our lives, both practically and geopolitically.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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