Fear of thinking war machines may push U.S. to exascale

Congress readies a bill, but funding estimates are below other nations

WASHINGTON -- Unlike China and Europe, the U.S. has yet to adopt and fund an exascale development program, and concerns about what that means to U.S. security are growing darker and more dire.

China's retaking of the global supercomputing crown was the starting point for discussion at an IBM-sponsored congressional forum this week on cognitive computing.

Cognitive computing systems have the capability of taking vast amounts of data and making what will be, for all intents, thoughtful decisions.

Efforts to draw attention to exascale in the U.S. House are being led Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), who talked about China's new 33.89-petaflop system, Tianhe-2.

"It's important not to lose sight that the reality was that it was built by China's National University of Defense Technology," said Hultgren, who is finalizing a bill "that will push our nation toward exascale."

Hultgren is introducing legislation, the American Supercomputing Leadership Act, to require the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a coordinated exascale research program. The bill doesn't call for a specific spending level, but one source said about an annual appropriation of $200 million, if not more, will be sought.

That amount of money is well short of what's needed to build an exascale system, or a computer of 1,000 thousand petaflops. Each petaflop represents one thousand trillion floating point operations per second.

Earl Joseph, an HPC analyst at IDC, said that "$200 million is better than nothing, but compared to China and Europe it's at least 10 times too low."

Joseph said that it's his guess that the world will see an exascale system by 2015 or 2016 "installed outside the U.S. It will take a lot of power and it will be large, but it will provide a major capability."

Lawmakers, at a recent hearing, were told by HPC researchers that the U.S. needs to spend at least $400 million annually to achieve exascale capabilities in a reasonable time, possibly by end of this decade.

If the U.S. falls behind in HPC, the consequences will be "in a word, devastating," Selmer Bringsford, chair of the Department. of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said at the forum. "If we were to lose our capacity to build preeminently smart machines, that would be a very dark situation, because machines can serve as weapons.

"When it comes to intelligent software, the U.S. is preeminent and we simply cannot lose that because the repercussions in the future, defense-wise, would be very bad," said Bringsford.

The risk is not just in the technology, but in the people as well. The U.S. abandoned its efforts to develop a super collider in the 1990s. Europe built the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, and consequently this research facility draws physicists from around the world.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) told of meeting with post-doctoral physicists doing his work in at the European facility. There was once a time when that same work was done in the U.S., said Fattah.

"We can't afford to retreat as a nation in investment in big science," said Fattah, "and there is no more important investment than high performance computing."

Joseph makes a similar point. As exascale capability arrives outside the U.S., he said, "we will likely start to see top researchers around the world either move to, or spend a lot of their time at these exascale sites."

The emergence of big data, the ability to take the sum total of something and not just a sample, will only be better enabled by exascale systems.

David McQueeney, vice president of IBM research, told lawmakers that HPC systems now have the ability to not only deal with large data sets but "to draw insights out of them." The new generation of machines are being programmed to understand what the data sources are telling them, he said.

"So instead of having to predetermine what the function of that machine is, you actually built a machine whose intention is to learn," said McQueeney.

This article, As machines learn to think, exascale will be critical to U.S. defense, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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