Supercomputers Act Like Talent Magnets

Titan, the new supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, has been crowned the fastest in the world. It can clock 17.59 petaflops (quadrillions of calculations per second). Audie Cornish talks to Steve Henn for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

CORNISH: Its official. The Titan supercomputer is now the fastest computer in the world. Titan grabbed the top spot this morning at a biannual super computing conference in Utah. NPR's Steve Henn visited Titan last month at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. And he joins me now in the studio. Hey there, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hey.

CORNISH: So I read that the Titan took the title by achieving a speed of 17.59 petaflops. What is a petaflop?

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: OK. A petaflop is a thousand trillion calculations every second.

CORNISH: Yikes.

HENN: Yeah. So it's pretty fast. Have you ever seen a supercomputer?

CORNISH: No. It's going to be in a big room, right?

HENN: It's in a huge room, yeah, like the size of a Kmart, and it's incredibly loud. And these computers use as much electricity as a small city. And the chips produce so much heat that in the room itself there's actually little weather patterns. So Buddy Bland, the director of the computer there, showed me around. And here he is describing it.

BUDDY BLAND: So you have cold air coming up from under the floor. And as you walk down here, it's quite cool in this aisle. But these disk drives are sucking the air through so, you know, it's very much microclimates inside of a computer room. It's like living in San Francisco.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Yeah.

CORNISH: So in 2010, China built the fastest computer in the world. Did Titan effectively bring the title back to the U.S.?

HENN: No. You know, actually, the title was held by a supercomputer in California called Sequoia. That Chinese computer that caused all the handwringing is now the eighth fastest computer in the world.

CORNISH: So these titles seem to go back and forth. I mean, do you have any sense the Titan will actually be able to hold on to it for very long?

HENN: No. You know, it replaced a computer called Jaguar that four years ago was the fastest in the world. It is 10 times faster than that machine. So the rate of growth in speed of, you know, what is a supercomputer is accelerating. You don't stay super for very long.

CORNISH: But, Steve, why is this important? I mean, is it about bragging rights? Why does it matter if we have the faster computers than China or Japan or Germany?

HENN: Well, I asked Jack Wells, the director of science at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, that question. And he says the extra speed allows scientists there to create higher resolution models for things like climate change and to discover new drugs. But he also said that these super computers were really one way of attracting the best and brightest people to this country from around the world.

JACK WELLS: It's a magnet far smart people with good ideas, people who want to express their ideas through our resource will come here and work. They'll move from Europe. They'll move from Asia. So we increase our brain power because of supercomputers.

HENN: And it's not just scientists who get to use this machine. There's actually a program that allows companies to submit requests and do research. And one was a little trucking company called BMI that actually used a supercomputer there to create a more fuel-efficient airfoil for diesel trucks.

So Wells really thinks that these computers are essential in helping the entire economy remain competitive globally, that they bring great minds here.

CORNISH: NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: My pleasure.

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