In June of 2016, Top 500 released its list of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. (1) Once again, China came out on top with the Sunway TaihuLight, which pushed the previous top contender, the Tianhe-2 to second place. Following the two Chinese supercomputers came the U.S. Titan, the U.S. Sequoia, and the Japanese K computer in 3rd, 4th, and 5th places. The rest of the top ten list was filled out by two more U.S. supercomputers as well as a Swiss contender, a German contender, and a Saudi Arabian contender.
To expand on this, the Sunway TaihuLight is remarkable in that it is a significant step-up from the previous top contender, the Tianhe-2. First, its 10,649,600 computing cores make it not just twice as fast as its counterpart but also three times as efficient, meaning that it is not just a little bit more powerful but a lot more powerful. Furthermore, its power consumption tops out at 15.37 megawatts, which actually makes it one of the greenest supercomputers when ranked using its performance relative to its power consumption. For comparison, the Sunway TaihuLight is about five times faster than the fastest U.S. supercomputer. (2)
However, what might be the most interesting part about the Sunway TaihuLight is that it was made using Chinese components rather than U.S. components imported from the United States. In short, the previous top contender, the Tianhe-2 was made using U.S. components imported from the United States. Furthermore, the Chinese had plans to upgrade the Tianhe-2 by using more U.S. components imported from the United States, which fell through when the United States banned exports of high-performance computing chips to China in 2015 based on the claim that such exports were not beneficial for its national interests. As a result, the Chinese had to come up with their own high-performance computing chips as a part of their continuing effort to reduce their reliance on foreign technologies.
How Powerful Is the TaihuLight Supercomputer?
Regardless, the Sunway TaihuLight managed 33.86 petaflops. For people who have never heard of the unit of measurement, a single petaflop is a quadrillion calculations in a single second, which is to say, not a billion which has 9 zeros, not a trillion which has 12 zeroes, but a quadrillion which has 15 zeroes. In other words, the Sunway TaihuLight can perform 33.86 quadrillion calculations in a single second, which is why it as well as other supercomputers like it can be used for all sorts of complicated tasks that would be impossible by their non-super counterparts. (3)
For example, supercomputers possess sufficient computing power to simulate the interactions between atoms down to the smallest levels, which in turn, enables scientists to learn much more about them than otherwise possible. Similarly, other scientists use them to simulate entire climates, thus enabling them to examine scenarios that would not be possible to reproduce in real life. Never mind the ethical implications even if reproducing such scenarios were possible.
Of course, it is important to note that supercomputers can be used for purposes related to national security as well. For example, the earliest supercomputers were created to crack codes, which could provide their possessors with a life-or-death advantage in both war and peace because cracked codes meant that they read all of their enemies’ encrypted communications. Furthermore, supercomputers have been used to run scenarios about the potential consequences should nuclear weapons be unleashed upon the world as well as other scenarios involving the destructive potential of such weapons. As a result, it is no wonder that the United States banned the export of high-performance computing chips to China, particularly it claims that the latter has used the Tianhe-2 to conduct research about nuclear weapons.
What Are the Implications?
To be honest, there is little new that we have learned from this fact. Yes, it is interesting that China now has not just the two most powerful supercomputers on the planet, but also the biggest number of supercomputers on the planet. However, this is the expected result of an emerging power that is willing to spend vast amounts of resources on building its computing capabilities, which it sees as being as important to its national interests as the United States sees its supercomputers to its national interests. The fact that China managed to build its components for the Sunway TaihuLight on its own might have come as a slight shock to those who had not been expecting it, but once again, this is the expected result of the sheer amount of resources that it has been pouring into its tech sector as well as its tech personnel.
Regardless, it is important to note that supercomputers are considered to be supercomputers on a relative basis. In other words, a supercomputer has to be much more powerful than its conventional counterparts to be considered one, meaning that the supercomputers of previous eras would not be particularly impressive when compared to the conventional computers of today. As a result, there is a continuous race to produce faster supercomputers as computing techniques and technologies become more and more advanced, thus bringing more and more possibilities into real life.
Chances are good that the Sunway TaihuLight will be used for the same purposes as its counterparts that can be found all around the world. However, it is possible that its existence could encourage the United States to build faster supercomputers of its own, which would be beneficial for our understanding of science as well as the computing techniques and technologies seen in the consumer market even if in no more than an indirect sense. In fact, President Obama has already stated his interest in building a U.S. supercomputer capable of 1,000 petaflops, which would be a true wonder to behold. However, it remains to be seen whether his successor in his office will show as much interest in advancing the sciences as he has.
Regardless, the Sunway TaihuLight should be seen as a positive not just for China but also for the rest of the world. If only because a little friendly competition between countries can serve to speed up the rate at which computing techniques and technologies advance, thus ensuring that the future of computing will be an interesting one.