The supercomputer Fugaku is a joint development by Japan’s Riken, a publicly funded research institute, and local computer specialist Fujitsu © JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

In one leg of the race for tech supremacy, superpowers China and the US have been pipped by a third contender — Japan.

Japan’s Fugaku supercomputer elbowed out America’s Summit as the most powerful supercomputer, according to June’s Top500 ranking. Fittingly for these pandemic times, Fugaku is devoting its considerable might — 415.53 petaflops, or a quadrillion floating-point operations per second — to matters of health and the environment.

That in itself is pretty novel. Supercomputers are often seen as the brains of a nation, playing a role in national security and technological one-upmanship. China still leads in sheer numbers. With 226 ranked supercomputers it has twice as many as America. Among the others in the top five, Japan, France and the UK trail well behind.

Chart shows the world’s fastest supercomputers

Progress in the field is turbocharged. Today’s smartphones trounce the supercomputers of the 1990s. A similar progression has occurred in the latter area. China’s Sunway TaihuLight, which topped the list in 2016 and is now relegated to fourth position, does not have even a quarter of the power of Japan’s Fugaku. The latter is 2.8 times as fast as the IBM-built Summit it usurped.

Yet the new machines under construction will dwarf even these speeds. Exascale computers are capable of doing a billion billion calculations a second — one exaflop. Design News puts it this way: to input 1+1+1 into your calculator once per second, without pausing to eat or sleep will take 31.7tn years. For the exascale computer it needs but one second. America’s Aurora, scheduled to arrive next year, targets a speed of 1.5 exaflops.

All these mega computers are essentially a bunch of linked processors, 36,000 in Summit’s case. Big, energy-guzzling kit is expensive and as such they are usually collaborations between governments, university labs and the private sector. Washington is backing its three exascale computers to the tune of $1.8bn. Fugaku is itself a joint development by Japan’s Riken, a publicly funded research institute, and local computer specialist Fujitsu.

That support is serendipitous since lofty aims and bragging rights have proven easier to come by than actual profits from the manufacturing itself. In the mid-1990s Cray, the grandfather of supercomputers, was forced to file for bankruptcy. Its later iteration posted net losses in each of the almost three years before it was purchased by HPE, Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise technology division, in 2019. Genius does not come easy, even for those in the field of supercomputers.

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