With full government support, China’s tech manufacturing businesses have leveraged their profits to evolve into the leading producers of cutting-edge microchip technology. Both government policies and consumer interests have stimulated innovation. Now China’s tech producers have developed a supercomputer that runs five times faster than anything built in the United States. Demolishing the competition from U.S.-based Intel, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, China boasts the two fastest supercomputers in the world and plans to immediately invest $150 billion more into research and development. Supercomputers have become the world metric of technological advancement because of their wide variety of uses. This 21st century tech race has been compared to the Space Race of the 20th century as supercomputers affect everything from science to national security. Although supercomputers are not a consumer product, their chip technology is quickly and inexpensively transferred into consumer applications. China’s 2014 era supercomputer blew away global competition using Intel-made chips, while their current TaihuLight machine uses only Chinese-made chip sets––the result, ironically, of the U.S. Commerce Department’s 2015 ban on Intel chip sales to Chinese supercomputer producers (1). The developers of the TaihuLight intend the newest machine to be used primarily for developing new advancements in manufacturing, likely placing U.S. developers further behind in the tech race. At the same time, Chinese supercomputer labs have developed software for these machines that might lack the polish and testing of U.S. products; however, technologically, these machines are several years ahead of products the U.S. has promised but not yet produced. China's tech development was unimaginable 10 to 15 years ago. With the sheer volume and speed of these new machines, China’s famous control over its domestic Internet content has also dramatically opened up. China is now allowing tremendous open Internet commerce, but unfortunately U.S. firms, such as Amazon, have had a hard time connecting with customers' preferences, giving the ongoing impression of a closed Internet. China is rapidly becoming notorious for using its supercomputers to scour and crunch big data across the global Internet.
Traditionally, China has been reliant on U.S. computer chip developers, like Intel, giving the U.S. control of supercomputer development. China’s rise in computing was unexpected and in record time. How does China have the two fastest supercomputers when their chip technology is arguably behind that of Intel? The United States' lead in chip technology is still significant enough to retain consumption from Chinese markets. Intel is the manufacturer of 91% of the chips for the machines on the list (2). But for how long will this be the case? With a large and growing consumer class, the Chinese chip market is important to U.S. firms. China’s aggressive plan will use a $150 billion investment in an attempt to capture 70% of the domestic market, while U.S. research funding has been decreasing. The U.S. government's only defense has been the prohibition of Intel's sale of Xeon processor chips to Chinese researchers.
Supercomputers are basically hundreds of thousands of microchips looped together while your home computer is made up of about four chips. The sheer quantity of processors and not necessarily as much the quality of the processors creates the speed. Scientifically, the faster the simulation is modeled, the more precisely the data is generated. Creating another blow to U.S. equipment producers, Chinese supercomputer labs have developed their own software programs for their own hardware. Many new scientific developmental software applications are being written to run exclusively on the Chinese TaihuLight. Development of supercomputers, in both the U.S. and China, is the domain of government-funded programs not unlike the space program. The U.S. has ordered domestic, Intel-based supercomputers to be delivered in 2018 that exceed the speeds of the current Chinese machines; however, increased funding is now stalled in the Senate. “Massive domestic gains in computing power are necessary to address the national security, scientific, and health care challenges of the future,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Republican from Illinois whose American Super Computing Leadership Act has twice been passed by the House of Representatives. “It is increasingly evident that America is losing [its] lead” (3). Of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, the U.S. has 165, while the Chinese have 167 systems (4). This disparity leaves the U.S. with considerable ground to cover, even if the Senate appropriates the funding.
Although the development and testing of supercomputers appears theoretical and requires massive investments of government and tech industry capital, the broad implication of Chinese programs is the application of new chip technology in their consumer semiconductor chip business. Chinese-government-owned flash memory and DRAM chips manufacturers are due to be up and running in 2017 and Chinese officials claim to be building a machine that can process some quintillion operations per second, ten times faster than TaihuLight in 2020 (5). This will have a massive impact on the balance of future consumer chip sales and applications as the Chinese improve their quality and bring their manufacturing costs down. Also, U.S. chip manufacturers have focused on research and development of cloud-based computing for commerce applications, like Amazon and Google, rather than supercomputers that have more scientific applications. Also raising the stakes, the most important scientific applications include nuclear weapons development. In fact, Erich Stromaier, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, maintains the list of the top 500 supercomputers.
While the Chinese may be perfecting an update 1990’s style supercomputer that is the size of a warehouse and uses the same amount of power as 15,000 homes, the United States is at work creating an exascale supercomputer that uses twice the power and may have artificial intelligence capabilities but is still years from completion (6). The stakes are high in supercomputer development, whether they are used to develop consumer technology or science, ranging from health to nuclear defense. These machines need to remain on the cutting edge.
(1)Barrett, Brian. "China’s New Supercomputer Puts the US Even Further Behind." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 21 June 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016. <https://www.wired.com/2016/06/fastest-supercomputer-sunway-taihulight/>.
(3) Barrett, Brian. "China’s New Supercomputer Puts the US Even Further Behind." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 21 June 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016. <https://www.wired.com/2016/06/fastest-supercomputer-sunway-taihulight/>.
(6) Barrett, Brian. "China’s New Supercomputer Puts the US Even Further Behind." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 21 June 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016. <https://www.wired.com/2016/06/fastest-supercomputer-sunway-taihulight/>.
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