Intel and the Department of Energy are building America's first exascale supercomputer, a computer capable of a quintillion calculations per second

IntelThe Aurora exascale supercomputer.
  • Intel and the US Department of Energy announced Monday that they would build Aurora, described as the US’s first exascale supercomputer.
  • An exascale supercomputer, capable of processing 1 quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) calculations per second, could be used for testing military weapons, modelling weather patterns, or doing research on cancer, cardiac issues, traumatic brain injuries, and suicide prevention.
  • Intel and the Energy Department said that when Aurora is completed in 2021, it will be the most powerful supercomputer in the US and potentially the world, though other countries may also have plans to build an exascale supercomputer.

Intel said on Monday that it would build the US’s most powerful supercomputer, so fast that it could process 1 quintillion – 1 billion times 1 billion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 – calculations per second.

To put that in perspective: If every person on Earth did one calculation (say, a maths problem involving algebra) per second, it would take everyone over four years to do all the calculations Aurora could do in one second.

Intel and the US Department of Energy said Aurora would be the US’s first exascale supercomputer, with a performance of 1 exaflop, when it’s completed in 2021.

That kind of number-crunching brawn, the computer’s creators hope, will enable great leaps in everything from cancer research to renewable-energy development.

Aurora, set to be developed by Intel and its subcontractor Cray at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, would far surpass the abilities of supercomputers today. It’s likely to be the most powerful supercomputer in not just the US but the world, though Rick Stevens, an associate laboratory director at Argonne, said that other countries might also be working on exascale supercomputers.

IntelRajeeb Hazra, a corporate vice president and general manager at Intel.

The effort marks a “transformational” moment in the evolution of high-performance computing, Rajeeb Hazra, an Intel corporate vice president and general manager of its enterprise and government group, told Business Insider.

What Aurora could do

A computer that powerful is no small thing. Though Intel didn’t unveil the technical details of the system, supercomputers typically cover thousands of square feet and have thousands of nodes.

When it’s finished, this supercomputer should be able to do space simulations, drug discovery, and more. The government said it planned to use it to develop applications in science, energy, and defence. Aurora could also be used by universities and national labs.

For example, it could be used to safely simulate and test weapons – without actually setting them off or endangering people – or design better batteries, wind-power systems, or nuclear reactors. It could also be used to better understand earthquake hazards and model the risks of climate change.

It could even be used for research on cancer, cardiac issues, traumatic brain injuries, and suicide prevention, especially among veterans. The supercomputer is designed to apply large-scale data analytics and machine learning to understand the risk factors for these kinds of physical and mental health problems to help prevent them.

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Intel, which says it helps power over 460 of the top 500 supercomputers, has worked with the Department of Energy for about two decades. It said Aurora would be five times as fast as the most powerful supercomputer, IBM’s Summit.

The Department of Energy’s contract with Intel and Cray is worth over $US500 million to build Aurora, which Secretary of Energy Rick Perry authorised in 2017. The department also plans to build additional exascale supercomputers to start working between 2021 and 2023.

“The biggest challenge is also probably the most exciting part: to envision and create technologies that have never been created before,” Hazra said. “Because this machine requires a level of capability we haven’t seen before, the biggest risk is we’re inventing something new – but to us, that’s also the most exciting part.”

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