Modern smartphones are thousands of times more powerful than the supercomputers of a few decades ago. But they are puny by comparison with the latest machines. Exascale systems are capable of performing more than one billion billion (10¹⁸) operations per second. That is comparable to aggregating the computing capabilities of all the mobile phones in the EU.
It has taken years of effort to break the exaflop barrier. Confirmation of that achievement by the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge national laboratory is expected when the twice-yearly Top 500 listing of supercomputers is published in a few weeks’ time. But China reportedly got there more than a year ago.
On the most recent rankings, the US is home to five of the current top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world. But its share of the top 500 computers has fallen from more than half in 2012 to under 30 per cent. China now has the biggest share while Europe’s share has held steady at about a fifth. The EU has pooled resources to buy high-end machines which are sited in Luxembourg, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, Finland and Italy.
The UK is losing ground. Its share of global high-performance computing capacity has more than halved since 2018 to 2 per cent. A government report last year highlighted the risks of lagging behind. Systems become obsolete in just five to eight years. Lack of access to leading-edge computing will hobble many industrial and scientific endeavours.
Some applications are high profile. Japan’s supercomputer Fugaku, which currently holds the top spot in the Top 500 rankings, grabbed public attention when it simulated the spread of coronavirus from a worker coughing at his desk. Supercomputer-enabled advances in predicting the 3D shapes of proteins were hailed as a breakthrough that would transform biology. The UK’s Met Office promises its weather forecasting will move to the next level as a new more powerful machine is rolled out.
Less public is their role in defence and cracking encryption codes. But their potential impact is huge. Supercomputers can solve a lot of problems, but the race for supremacy stands to create plenty more.