MICHELE NORRIS, host: This week, NPR's Louisa Lim is reporting on China's rapid pursuit of high technology. And today, she picks up with China's Sputnik moment. That was the announcement last November that China had overtaken the U.S. to produce the world's fastest supercomputer. Already, the Chinese have been overtaken by Japan, which has built a machine three times as fast.
Louisa has been investigating the claims and counter-claims about China's super-computing program.
LOUISA LIM: Today, China boasts 61 out of the top 500 supercomputers in the world. That makes it second only to the U.S., which has 255. Jack Dongarra at the University of Tennessee helps compile the list and he spells out why this is significant.
JACK DONGARRA: The striking thing is back in 2001 China had zero computers on the list. So China very quickly grew its high-performance computing capabilities and are now number two on the list, in terms of the number of high-performance computers deployed.
(SOUNDBITE OF A PUBLICITY FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chinese language spoken)
LIM: As the publicity film says, China's government prioritized the development of supercomputers, going as they say, from zero to hero in just a decade. China may have only held the coveted top spot for six months but it was a moment of intense national pride, especially at the home of the $60 million Tianhe 1A machine.
LIU GUANGMING: (Chinese language spoken)
LIM: It's in the National Supercomputer Centre, a brand new purpose built building in a brand new district of Tianjin, near Beijing. I was given a tour by director Liu Guangming, who told me how he teased U.S. computer scientists about the title.
GUANGMING: (Through Translator) When we took the title of the fastest in the world, we weren't trying to be number one. I like to joke and say we took number one by mistake. The joke is you guys weren't making any progress, but I was making progress, so I became number one.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
LIM: I have to say it's not much to look at. It's basically a row of enormous cabinets that look a bit like enormous fridges. And they're all full of computing equipment, which is blinking away madly. But this is equivalent to a quarter of a million home computers all linked together. Just think what that could do.
GUANGMING: (Through Translator) The key is that this supercomputer can fulfill our needs, including mineral exploration, for bioengineering, patents, pharmaceuticals and gene sequencing. Supercomputers can do all these things, as well as 3-D cartoons and animation.
LIM: But some are asking if the Tianhe 1A really can do all those things. It mainly uses American chips: CPUs from Intel, as well as GPUs which are normally used for animation from another American company, Nvidia, and Chinese chips called Feiteng.
The problem is much of the software available can only use the CPUs. Put another way, it's a bit like putting an airplane engine on top of a car engine and saying it's the fastest car in the world. But in fact the car can mostly only run on its old car engine.
China's fastest supercomputer is not using its full potential, according to Cao Jianwen, a Chinese Academy of Sciences' software expert, who's called the supercomputer a games machine.
Dr. CAO JIANWEN: (Through Translator) I'm not saying the computer's no good. I'm saying they publicized it wrongly. They said it was number one, but you can't use the GPUs. There isn't a single application that works well with both the GPUs and CPUs. The real customers only use CPUs. But most of the people who use the national supercomputer are animation and games people.
LIM: But Supercomputer Centre Director Liu Guangming dismisses criticisms about its effectiveness as simply wrong.
GUANGMING: (Through Translator) We've worked with the state oil company, CNPC, using their own trademarked software. We've made a huge contribution to our country's energy development. That's enough for me. Anybody who says we're just playing games, well they can go off and play by themselves. I don't care.
LIM: However, China's lagging far behind the U.S. in software development. Computer scientists here say just 10 percent of Beijing's investment goes to software. And not having their own applications could hold China back.
Jack Dongarra says it's still too early to tell whether China's most powerful supercomputer is simply an expensive white elephant.
DONGARRA: This is a critical thing. So they have a race car. And now you have to build something around the race car in order to effectively use it. You can't just invest in the hardware. You need to make an investment across the board. Sometimes these ecosystems are out of balance, and as a result of that, the computer would be very hard to use.
LIM: Regardless, China is not sitting on its laurels. Three more supercomputer centers are under construction around the country. And Chinese scientists are working on their own all-Chinese chips. China may have held the number one spot for just six months, but it still has to prove it can innovate indigenous solutions rather than just importing them.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.