Supercomputer Race Heats Up as China Bans Exports of High-Performance Machines

China is curbing exports of its high-performance machines in an apparent attempt to stay one step ahead of the U.S. in a race for the world's fastest supercomputer.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Customs issued a joint statement on Friday announcing restrictions on the export of supercomputers and high-performance drones, the Wall Street Journal reported. Exporters will need to obtain a license to sell computers with an operating capacity exceeding 8 teraflops—the equivalent of performing more than eight trillion calculations per second—abroad. The announcement also placed restrictions on drone exports, applicable to high-performance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of flying for more than one hour consistently and dealing with inclement weather, as well as drones capable of hovering at heights of 1.5 km, according to the South China Morning Post.

The announcement cited unspecified national security concerns as the reason for the restrictions. However, provisions come just months after the U.S. blocked a shipment of tens of thousands of chips from American firm Intel to China, which were due to be used to update Tianhe-2, currently the fastest supercomputer in the world. The U.S. Department of Commerce said Intel's application to export had been blocked because Tianhe-2 and three other Chinese supercomputers were being used for "nuclear explosive activities."

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China and the U.S. have been locked in a two-way tussle for supercomputer supremacy over the past decade, a trend that looks set to continue, with President Barack Obama issuing an executive order last week commissioning the world's first exascale supercomputer, to be built by 2025. The computer would be capable of doing one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second, otherwise known as an exaflop, and would see Washington leapfrog Beijing in the supercomputing race In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama referred to the need for the U.S. to outstrip its rivals in technological advances—including supercomputers—as "our generation's Sputnik moment," referring to the first artificial satellite launched into space by the Soviet Union.

But do these supercomputers merit the rhetoric and tough stances taken by both China and the U.S.? Mark Parsons, executive director of the EPCC (University of Edinburgh's supercomputing centre), which houses the U.K.'s fastest supercomputer, says that the machines can be used for both civil and military purposes by governments. Common uses include more accurate weather modelling and assisting with climate change predictions, but the machines can also be used to trawl through the internet instantaneously and open up new avenues for espionage. However, Parsons say the race is as much about prestige as practical reasons. "The arms race in high-performance computing has always been about who has the computer which can do the most FLOPS," says Parsons, referring to floating-point operations per second (FLOPS), the measure used for monitoring supercomputer performance. He says that such machines are seen as "totem poles," or status symbols..

But according to Tim Stevens, a cyberwarfare expert in the War Studies Department at King's College London, whoever possesses such a beast of a machine has a considerable national security advantage. Stevens says that the primary security implication of supercomputers is nuclear—whoever is in possession of such machines is capable of accurately modelling the capabilities of their nuclear weapons,. A ban on actual nuclear testing came into effect in 1996 with the signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

"Traditionally, a lot of supercomputing has grown out of the nuclear industry. Once there was a moratorium on nuclear testing, you had to find some other way of doing it," says Stevens. He compares the possession of supercomputers to the possession of nuclear weapons, saying that both are a marker of technological advancement and clout on the international stage.

For the foreseeable future, it looks as though the supercomputer race will be fought out exclusively between Beijing and Washington. Currently, China holds the that honour of building the fastest computing machine, and the prestige that comes with it. According to Top 500, which monitors the supercomputing industry, Tianhe-2 has been the world's number one system since June 2013. The Chinese machine, developed by China's the National University of Defense Technology, is almost twice as powerful as the second-placed Titan, which is housed in the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The processing power of Tianhe-2 is 33.86 petaflops. For scale, that is equivalent to 18,400 Sony Playstation 4s. It would take almost 32 million years for a human to complete just one petaflop of calculations.

Japan is the closest competitor with the fourth-fastest machine, and Europe has two supercomputers in the top 10—one in Switzerland and one in Germany. However, of the 20 fastest machines in the world, only seven come from outside China or the U.S. Russia, a constant rival to the U.S. in other fields such as nuclear proliferation and space travel, is well behind—its top machine, situated at Moscow State University, was ranked 32nd.

With Obama committed to getting the U.S. back in front, and China expected to accelerate its domestic chip-making efforts after Intel's rebuffal, it's hard to pick who will come out on top. Parsons says he thinks that China could be first to produce an exascale machine, but that its quality and usability would lag behind anything produced by the U.S. Meanwhile, Stevens is willing to place a tentative bet on Washington. "Given that China has had the lead for so long, I'll put five pounds on the U.S. to be a neck ahead by 2025," he says.

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