The U.S. No Longer Has One of the Top Three Fastest Supercomputers

As America’s grasp on the world of supercomputing continues to slip, the Department of Energy is seeking to reinvigorate the nation’s capabilities.

A new ranking shows that, for the second year running, the world’s fastest supercomputer is TaihuLight, housed at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China. Capable of performing 93 quadrillion calculations per second, it’s almost three times faster than the second-placed Tianhe-2. And in third spot this year is a newly upgraded device, called Piz Dain, at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre, which recently had its performance boosted by the addition of Nvidia GPUs.

Sadly for America, the upgraded Piz Dain pushes the Department of Energy’s Titan supercomputer, which is housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, into fourth spot. Able to make 17.6 quadrillion number crunches per second, Titan is a full five times slower than TaihuLight. In its defense, the U.S. still claims five of the top 10 spots, and is home to 169 of the supercomputers that make up the fastest 500. China, meanwhile, can only claim 160.

But the news nonetheless serves to highlight America’s decline as a supercomputing heavyweight. This is the first time since 1996 that America hasn’t held one of the top three spots. It indicates that, while it certainly has significant supercomputing resources, it can’t tackle its biggest problems at anywhere near the speeds enjoyed by researchers in China.

It may be tempting to suggest that the dawn of practical quantum computing, one of our 10 breakthrough technologies of 2017, would remove the need for supercomputers. But it will be several years before quantum computers can perform such large-scale calculations. Even then, while quantum devices promise to be able to solve some specific problems with incredible speed, it’s not clear whether or not they will be able to reliably solve all problems faster than regular supercomputers.

That leaves many areas of research…

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