Losing Our Edge in High Performance Computing?

Our Department of Energy and National Security Agency would like for you to believe this:

As China, the US and Japan near the finish line in exascale race, the DOE and NSA are sounding the alarm that the United States is at grave risk of losing its dominant position in high performance computing. According to the assessment of the two agencies, “absent aggressive action by the US – the US will lose leadership and not control its own future in HPC.”

That is the primary conclusion of a report based on a technical meeting between representative of those two agencies held in September 2016. The document, titled U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing (HPC), A Report from the NSA-DOE Technical Meeting on High Performance Computing, describes how the United States has been losing ground to the Chinese, who appear to be determined not just to win the race to exascale, but to usurp the role of the US as the global leader in high performance computing technology.

But it’s not quite that simple:

As we recently wrote in an article about the state of Chinese supercomputing, they are not as advanced as their top systems would lead you to believe. In the US, there seems to be a distinct tendency to over-hype Chinese supercomputing achievements. Whether that is a reflection of a “grass is always greener” syndrome, is the result of losing supercomputing hegemony in a rapidly democratizing industry, is a tactic to draw in more US government investments into HPC, or is a legitimate analysis, remains to be determined.

HPC is an important part for scientific and technological advance.  Probably the US’ falling behind in this field has its greatest general interest in weather forecasting, as I discussed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where we have taken a back seat to the, er, Europeans for some time.  It’s interesting to note that the previous Occupant didn’t do much to change that situation, although he was labelled the “scientific President.”

That, of course, is part of the problem: we don’t elevate people with scientific backgrounds to leadership positions in the government. (The Chinese, and many others, do.)  That’s ingrained in our culture, and fortified by the distinctly Luddite 1960’s.  As long as that is the case, we will be forced to present our ideas as dogma and not science, which is what’s taking place in today’s “March for Science.”

Relative to that, there are other questions.  What’s unscientific about the Chinese (or anyone else) getting advanced capabilities?  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the Chinese, who have pushed STEM education with their people to degrees unimaginable here, would get this result?  Or anyone else?  Why should we have a monopoly on this?  Why don’t some of our people just emigrate like theirs, if this place is so “unscientific?”  Perhaps the “March for Science” should be called the “March for Academic Patriotism,” although the rest of the campus would go bonkers if they did that.

The road to dominance in HPC is a long one, and not particularly straight.  It’s like my description of the arc of justice: it is not necessarily smooth, continuous, or differentiable.  For a field which is all about binary thinking, the results of change can be complex and have unexpected outcomes.  But if we spent as much time inducing significant systemic changes in our own system and not constantly playing the “blame and shame” game, we’d be further down the road to solve our HPC “fading glory” problem.

HT Pointwise.

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