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How A Tennessee Supercomputer, Now The World's Fastest, Might Find New Cures For Cancer

Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled a new supercomputer that's significantly faster than the old one.
Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled a new supercomputer that's significantly faster than the old one.

A massive room in East Tennessee is now home to the fastest supercomputer in the world. Oak Ridge National Laboratory officially unveiled the machine called Summit late last week, which takes up the size of two tennis courts.

It's hard to wrap one's mind around how fast a superfast supercomputer can be. Technically, it's somewhere around 200 petaflops, or 200 trillion calculations per second.

"It can do, in fractions of a second, what it would take millions of computers to do otherwise,"says John Kelly, a senior vice president with IBM, which built the machine.

"And, probably most importantly, it can tackle problems that all other computers can't do in our lifetime." 

More:Oak Ridge Scientists Are Writing Code That Not Even The World's Fastest Computers Can Run (Yet)

Kelly says what he's prouder of, than the speed, is the fact that the computer integrates artificial intelligence, which allows it to do more complicated data analysis even faster.

For example, machine learning algorithms can help researchers sift through medical images and reports to identify factors that seem to lead to diseases like cancer.

"Essentially, we are training computers to read documents and abstract information using large volumes of data," Oak Ridge researcher Gina Tourassi said. "Summit enables us to explore much more complex models in a time efficient way so we can identify the ones that are most effective."

That project will be one of the first to run on the machine. Other early projects, according to the national laboratory, include simulating exploding stars to understand how they relate to heavy elements found in the universe and identifying patterns in human proteins among people with Alzheimer's or heart disease.

Compared to the last supercomputer at Oak Ridge, Summit is also much more energy efficient. ORNL computing facility director Buddy Bland told WPLN in 2014 that the previous computer, called Titan, "makes as much noise as a jet engine." Not so with Summit, says Kelly.

"It's sort of got a relatively loud hum, but it's a lot quieter than previous systems, because previous systems were cooled by air with big blower fans," he says. "This one is cooled with water. So it pumps a lot of water through the system to keep it chilled."

Although Summit currently takes the top spot in the world in terms of speed, there are always people developing the next better, faster machine. In fact, Oak Ridge currently has developers working on exascale computing, which will be at least five times faster than the new world-record holder.


Copyright 2018 WPLN News

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.