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STEM Today: Obama Orders World’s Fastest Supercomputer

President Obama wants to build the world’s fastest computer, and he wants it to be completed within the next ten years.

Obama’s goal is to build a machine that is capable of performing a record-breaking quintillion operations per second— approximately 30 times faster than any computer that exists today (the fastest is currently reported to be the Chinese Tianhe-2). The news came in the form of an executive order issued on Jul. 29, which also established the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), a government body designed to foster growth in the field of advanced computing.

The order names four major principles to guide future government action in regards to high-performance computer development. Among them is a directive for the US to deploy the technology broadly “for economic competitiveness and scientific discovery.” Collaboration between the public and private spheres is to be encouraged, and advanced computing technology should draw experience and expertise from a wide range of individuals and organizations.

Why would the government want to invest so much effort into creating a faster computer? Some analysts believe that such a machine might be able to help solve complex problems regarding weather forecasts or medical issues. An estimated 200 megawatts of power would be required to run Obama’s proposed computer, possibly necessitating the use of a dedicated power plant.

To offer a comparison between the proposed project and what is currently available, the Tianhe-2 can perform 34 quadrillion operations per second. The US Department of Energy has the world’s second-fastest supercomputer, which can perform 17 quadrillion.

A White House blog post explains the initiative as follows:

By strategically investing now, we can prepare for increasing computing demands and emerging technological challenges, building the foundation for sustained U.S. leadership for decades to come, while also expanding the role of high-performance computing to address the pressing challenges faced across many sectors.

 

Activity: Supercomputers are only the latest area of technology where various international governments have raced to get ahead. Do some research on the Space Race that occurred between the US and Russia in the twentieth century. What were some of the outcomes of that “race” for science and technology?

Jobs: Data scientist, algorithm engineer

Sources: NPR, New York Times 

Photo credit: Creative Commons

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Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. A graduate of the journalism program at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, she spends her time writing about science, history, and books.

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