China, a supercomputer power without software applications



The latest TOP500 survey, a project that classifies and details the 500 most powerful non-systems in the world, announced last November, reveals how China claims 202 of the top 500 fastest machines in the world, outstripping the US. Furthermore, China has the fastest supercomputer in the world: Sunway TaihuLight. A computer that has the ability to perform at 100 petaflop, or 100 quadrillion operations in one second.

Gan Lin, the assistant director of China’s National Supercomputing Centre in Wuxi, eastern China, points out that China has committed itself to investing in supercomputers: “China’s supercomputers developed very rapidly, especially in the past 10 years”. Gan Li also makes an example to understand the power of Sunway TaihuLight: “Assuming that everyone on earth is given one calculator each, something that the Sunway TaihuLight takes one minute to compute will take all 7.2 billion people 32 years to compute collectively”.

China started its supercomputing programme in the early 1980s after the country opened its economy. Under the 863 programme, a national initiative started in 1986, the Ministry of Science and Technology had stipulated a two-pronged approach to developing its supercomputers. On the one hand, import advanced computer chips from abroad to build supercomputers. On the other hand, build a fully home-grown supercomputer using made-in-China computer chips.

Despite these great successes, China is only half of its goal. Indeed the Chinese government announced detailed plans to become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning by 2030.

Even so, China still lags behind the US and Japan in terms of software applications. Cao Jianwen, a researcher at State Key Laboratory of Computer Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: “The machines are ultimately made to realise programs designed by humans. Owning the fastest supercomputers lays a good foundation for China to catch up, but it could take another decade to see how China can maximise their use”.

However, it is possible to foresee that this gap will also be filled in a short time. Gan Lin said that in the first year and a half since Sunway TaihuLight’s launch in 2016, his team of around 100 researchers was able to develop more than 100 applications in 13 fields, including climate change, manufacturing and big data.

Moreover, China Daily recently reported that the country produces more than 600,000 postgraduates and PhDs each year, as well as millions of college graduates. It is possible to think that many of them will contribute to the success of China’s software industry.


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