Not So Fast: America’s Supercomputer Takes the Lead Back From China

America's supercomputer is now the best
America's supercomputer is now the best, Photo: Sebastien Decoret/123RF

It’s been a busy week for news. First, scientists said life once existed on Mars. Their Mars rover has dug up the proof. Then, the people that run the Miss America contest said the entrants would no longer appear in bathing suits. And now it’s been announced that America has unveiled a new supercomputer that seizes the crown for fastest in the world back from China.

Our new “Summit” computer blows the Chinese computer out of the water, according to a front-page article in The New York Times. It runs at 200 petaflops. The Chinese “Sunway” computer struggles along at 93.0 petaflops. It won honors as fastest last year. But that’s old news.

How much is 200 petaflops?

The Times reports that 200 petaflops equals 200 quadrillion calculations a second—a single person doing one calculation per second would have to live more than 6.3 billion years to do as many calculations as our new “Summit” computer does in a second. Or, the Times offers, looked at another way, if 100,000 people were sitting in a stadium working on current generation laptops, you’d need 20 stadiums of people to keep up with our American computer.

Summit is American made. It sits in a nearly 10,000-square-foot room in a building at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee. It weighs 340 tons and its main components are a group of 9,201 central processor chips from IBM and 27,648 graphics processor chips from Nvidia tied together with 185 miles of fiber optics cables, the Times writes.

It heats up when in use and has to be cooled by the flow of 4,000 gallons of cold water a minute powered by enough electricity to light up 8,100 homes. The government spent $200 million to create this.

No doubt, Donald Trump will claim that this flexing of America’s muscles came about on his watch. However it would be incorrect. The expense was authorized by President Obama. It’s just that it took two years to make it happen.

I was skeptical that Summit could work at 200 petaflops. So, I had it trucked over to my house on Three Mile Harbor Road. We’d have a little competition, it and I.

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Summit wouldn’t fit into our dining room, so we set it up in the living room and I took the dining room. Under the archway separating the dining room from the living room, we had the basketball referee from the first game of the NBA playoffs who ruled that LeBron had committed a foul against Durant rather than Durant charged into LeBron, which basically cost the Cavaliers the championship.

This man, who has changed his name to Mr. X, held up a card. On it, it said 2 + 2. I responded quickly with “four.” I won.

The scientists with Summit said they weren’t ready, so the referee held up another card: 2 + 5.

“Seven!” I shouted.

Another win for humanity.

5 + 8.

I hesitated. Summit won that one.

And so we went to winner take all.

11 + 9.

“Twenty” I shouted. Victory was sweet. So the fear we have that computers will take over is false. There’s nothing to worry about.

At the end of the article in the Times, however, there was a correction. A computer scientist named Jack Dongarra had originally told the reporter it would take a person 63 billion years to match what Summit could do in one second. But he had messed up his calculation.

The true fact was that it would only take a person 6.3 billion years, not 63 billion years. The error had been fixed in later editions of the Times, but in their earlier editions it appeared as 63 not 6.3. The error also was in the  headline and the mobile news alert.

They regretted the error. They also regretted that the name of the Under Secretary for Science in the U.S. Energy Department had been inaccurately printed in earlier editions as “Paul Dabarr.” In fact, his name is Paul Dabbar.

Well, you know. These things happen.

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