Forget the evil Skynet from “The Terminator”: Many of the supercomputers in our world are working for the good of humanity. Supercomputers, which can process more information and do it faster than traditional machines, were first introduced in the 1960s. The earliest supercomputer was the Control Data Corp. (CDC) 6600, designed by Seymour Cray. Operational in 1965, it had only a single CPU but offered a clock speed of 100 nanoseconds, the fastest of its day.
Supercomputers spent the next few decades evolving as fast as a fish next to a nuclear power plant. For now, the fastest supercomputer in the world is Fujitsu’s K, which operates at the RIKEN institute in Japan.
Many of the supercomputers operating today focus on solving key problems facing humanity, including climate research, disease control and energy efficiency. Here are seven of these fantastic machinesworking to make our world a better place.
IBM’s Watson commits to cancer research
IBM’s supercomputer Watson — the computer that famously competed against previous “Jeopardy” champions in 2011 — has joined forces with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Watson will work with doctors to provide the most recent cancer data, creating the most effective individualized cancer diagnostic and treatment plans for patients. Unlike other supercomputers, Watson can process and understand natural language. IBM says that, with its shared computer memory, Watson’s servers can process 500 gigabytes of information per second. This is the equivalent of 1 million books per second.
Why is this important? Dr. Martin Kohn, IBM's chief medical scientist, told ABC News, “What Watson can do is read and understand huge volumes of information. There is so much information being developed in health care in general, and oncology in particular, that the ability to understand all the information out there is becoming progressively more challenging. What Watson does is bring information to the doctor.”
Fujitsu’s K computer may improve tsunami prediction
The Fujitsu K is the world’s fastest supercomputer, conducting more than 10 quadrillion calculations per second, also known as 10 petaflops. Each CPU of this machine has 16GB of local RAM, totaling 1,377 terabytes of memory. The K computer uses more than 12 megawatts of power, about the same as 30,000 homes.
The supercomputer also holds potential uses to make the world a better and safer place for lowly humans. Among applications for improving semiconductors and pharmaceutical improvements, Fujitsu reports that the K computer may simulate “the actions of atoms and electrons in dye-sensitized solar cells to contribute to the development of solar cells with higher energy-conversion efficiency.” The K computer can also be used to study seismic wave propagation to predict the effect of tsunamis on buildings, helping to both improve their design and stabilize their construction in earthquake zones.
The Tianhe-1A to save us all
Prior to the Fujitsu K, the fastest supercomputer on the planet was China’s Tianhe-1A. Translated from “river in the sky," the Tianhe-1A delivers around 2.51 petaflops at peak performance. Some experts note that it can perform as many as 2.57 quadrillion calculations per second. Housed in the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, China, CNN reports that this machine is being used for drug discovery, hurricane and tsunami modeling, cancer research, car design and studying the formation of galaxies — to name a few.
From Jaguar to Titan
Not to be outdone by the Chinese or Japanese, the United States is making it's own move for the world’s fastest supercomputer. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Jaguar supercomputer, located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is undergoing a massive upgrade that will be finished in late 2012. Renamed the “Titan,” the supercomputer will be able to perform 20 quadrillion calculations per second, or twice as many as the Fujitsu K. The Jaguar is used to study alternative energy technologies and climate change, among other issues.
The Sierra supercomputer to improve fuel efficiency
GE Global Research is using the Sierra supercomputer to improve fuel injectors for the company’s next fleet of engines. GE hopes that the supercomputer can significantly hasten our understanding of fuel injectors, allowing the company to construct engines that will require less fuel and produce fewer emissions. At present, the focus of the study is aircraft turbines, though locomotives and land-based gas turbines may also be considered.
Rutgers University in New Jersey recently initiated a High-Performance Computing (HPC) center, powered by an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer. Hopes are that the HPC center will become one of the world’s most powerful academic supercomputers. The university reports that the goal of this project is to improve research across a multitude of areas, including cancer and genetic research, medical imaging and informatics, advanced manufacturing, environmental and climate research and materials science.
This image shows fields of temperature and pressure in a simulation of a complete helicopter combustion chamber.
What’s next for supercomputers?
Considering the gigantic leaps supercomputers have made since the first one was created in the 1960s, there’s no telling just how far the supercomputers of the 21st century will go. A team of experts out of Dusseldorf, Germany, has started work on a supercomputer that will simulate the workings of the human brain.
Professor Henry Markram is leading the project, which is estimated to be completed in the next 12 years. As Markram told The Daily Mail, “simulating [the brain] will make it much easier” for doctors to discover ways to help heal it, therefore providing insight into Alzheimer’s research and Parkinson’s disease. While some are concerned about the implications of creating a computer that can “think,” others hope that this project will be the first in a line of intelligent supercomputers. The project has received funding from the European Union and may receive more financing in the future.