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NSA, DOE say China's supercomputing advances put U.S. at risk

Patrick Thibodeau | March 16, 2017
China's computing efforts are a threat to U.S. national security and may undermine profitable parts of the U.S. economy, a new report warns

Credit: Jack Dongarra, report on the Sunway TaihuLight System, June 2016

Advanced computing experts at the National Security Agency and the Department of Energy are warning that China is "extremely likely" to take leadership in supercomputing as early as 2020, unless the U.S. acts quickly to increase spending.

China's supercomputing advances are not only putting national security at risk, but also U.S. leadership in high-tech manufacturing. If China succeeds, it may "undermine profitable parts of the U.S. economy," according to a report titled U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing by HPC technical experts at the NSA, the DOE, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

"To maintain U.S. leadership in HPC," the report says, "a surge" of U.S. "investment and action is needed to address HPC priorities."

Concern about China's technical advances have been raised before by U.S. scientists and industry groups, but never in such striking terms -- or by representatives of a spy agency.

The report stems from a workshop held in September that was attended by 60 people, many scientists, 40 of whom work in government, with the balance representing industry and academia. The report, which summarizes that meeting, was just posted online.

The threat from China is so acute that "absent aggressive action by the U.S. -- the U.S. will lose leadership and not control its own future in HPC," the report states. 

Indeed, the report says that "assuming status quo conditions, the meeting participants believe that a change in HPC leadership was extremely likely, with only minor disagreement on the timescale; many suggested that China would be leading the U.S. as early as 2020."

China supercomputing systems have been leading the Top 500 list, the global ranking of supercomputers, for several years. But that's not a measure of supercomputing leadership alone.

One workshop attendee, Paul Messina, a computer scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Labs and the head of its Exascale Computing Project, sketched out the HPC leadership criteria: It means leadership in producing and using systems, as well as "first mover advantage." It also means staying in the lead at all times. The U.S. needs to control its HPC destiny and "can't depend on other countries to sell us what we need," he said in an email.

Something to keep in mind is that this report was written at a time when many assumed that supercomputing funding was not under threat. The report calls for more spending while the Trump administration, along with the Republican-controlled Congress, is planning major cuts in the federal budget.

"National security requires the best computing available, and loss of leadership in HPC will severely compromise our national security," the report says. "Loss of leadership in HPC could significantly reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrence and the sophistication of our future weapons systems."


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