Supercomputers Fuel Competition

China’s installation of the world’s fastest supercomputer is galvanizing efforts by U.S. government agencies and companies to restore American leadership in the technology, a key tool in such fields as climate research, product design and weapons development.

Participants hope to outrace Chinese engineers in bringing a thousand-fold acceleration of today’s most powerful machines–replaying a crusade in the past decade that leapfrogged a supercomputer in Japan that briefly held the world speed crown.

This time, the challenges could be much tougher. Achieving the next major leap in computing performance could require systems with as many as a billion electronic brains, as well as programming breakthroughs to exploit them. And Republicans in Congress bent on reducing deficits may be hard to persuade to subsidize such developments.

It’s not going to be easy,” concedes Horst Simon, deputy laboratory director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, a major supercomputer user. But he says a case can be made that important scientific problems won’t be solved without a new generation of systems. “It is really an economic-competitiveness issue and a national-security issue,” he says.

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