Still super after all these years

Today’s supercomputers remain at the front edge of technology, explain MICHAEL LEVINE and RALPH ROSKIES of the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center

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Computing and information processing have become so intertwined with the activities of our daily lives that we often no longer notice it.

Thanks to advances in everyday computing applications, our telephones are actually powerful computers that serve as our 24-hour concierges, connecting us, managing our time, entertaining us and serving as an encyclopedia of a surprising proportion of world knowledge. The newest smartphones are now as powerful as the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center’s first supercomputer in 1986, which cost $18 million!

As individuals and companies, we have benefitted from commercial computing applications that help us coordinate electronic documents between individuals on different continents, conduct video meetings as if everyone were in the same room and outsource development of the specialized computer programs and hardware required by small companies without the monetary and personnel expense of creating them in-house.

Not only are these many services of immense value to us, offering them is sufficiently profitable to the private sector to drive them forward at an astonishing rate.

In addition to the benefits offered by these chiefly commercial products, however, we derive many benefits from a host of computing and information processing resources that are less familiar and more focused on the long term. These resources tackle a set of larger, societally important tasks that require specialized computers at the very front edge of technical performance: supercomputers.

The range of supercomputing’s achievements have been impressive: Today, supercomputers allow us to calculate the location and timing of hurricanes and tornados in a manner that is timely and accurate enough to guide public safety efforts and save lives. Supercomputers help match the genetics of donor organs with recipients to achieve faster, better matches and help create 3D printers that may someday build perfectly matched replacement organs from scratch. Supercomputers have identified unintended consequences of stock market rules, helping to create better rules that encourage more transparent, stable and fair markets. Just as importantly, supercomputing drives technological innovation, often contributing fundamental technologies to everyday computing decades later.

Supercomputing centers offer benefits at the state and local levels. The presence of these centers in local communities allow small- to mid-sized companies to develop their own computing capabilities. A startup company, for instance, might use a supercomputer to conduct product design feasibility studies.

Supercomputing centers can support city, county and state governments’ computational needs as well as provide local universities, colleges and even high schools with high-speed Web access. Educational programs at supercomputing centers have helped hundreds of high school, college and graduate students learn high-speed computing technologies and programming techniques, giving them a crucial advantage in their career paths and helping deepen local workforce technological capabilities. Programs at supercomputing centers also help high-school science teachers teach computer-oriented biology so they can prepare their students for further education and eventual careers in this burgeoning field.

As important as these activities are to our society’s long-term welfare, unlike immediately profitable everyday computing applications, they do not immediately pay for themselves but instead require funding from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, as well as from state governments.

As Pennsylvania’s only National Science Foundation supercomputing center, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center has been heavily involved in, and has often led, unique breakthroughs across a range of fields, developing programs that support local industry, government and education. Ultimately, though, the story is far bigger than any single supercomputing center. Even in today’s challenging fiscal environment, governments at every level should recognize that supercomputing continues to represent an important investment in the future.

Michael Levine of Carnegie Mellon University and Ralph Roskies of the University of Pittsburgh are the scientific directors of the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center in Oakland (www.psc.edu).


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