India’s recent Chandrayaan-2 mission, which almost soft landed a probe on the moon, had a palpable zeal, which, as prime minister Narendra Modi pointed out, will be felt in other realms of the knowledge society.
With renewed aspirations to excel in science, engineering, and business, the time is ripe for India to invest in the infrastructure that will help achieve these goals—among them, supercomputers.
Developed, and almost-developed, countries have begun investing heavily in high-performance computing to boost their economies and tackle the next generation of social problems.
With their unique ability to simulate the real world, by processing massive amounts of data, supercomputers have made cars and planes safer, and fuel more efficient and environment friendly. They help in the extraction of new sources of oil and gas, development of alternative energy sources, and the advancement of medical science.
Supercomputers have also allowed weather forecasters to accurately predict severe storms, enabling better mitigation planning, and warning systems. They are increasingly being deployed by financial services, manufacturing and internet companies, and in vital infrastructure systems such as water supply networks, energy grids, and transportation.
Future applications of artificial intelligence (AI), running at any moderate degree of scale, will depend on supercomputing. This explanatory video brings the potential of high-performance computing (HPC) to life.
Thanks to the potential of HPC, countries like the US, China, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia have created national-level supercomputing strategies and are investing substantial resources in these programmes. These are the nations with which India has to compete in its bid to become a centre for scientific and business excellence.
Yet, the list of top 500 supercomputers, counts fewer than five in the country.
India’s pursuit of excellence
A pertinent question here is whether it makes economic sense for India to invest in expensive technology like supercomputers? Can’t we make do with something more frugal? After all, we launched our Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission with a budget of $73 million and we almost made it to the moon’s south pole, where no country has ever gone before, for less than $150 million.
India is not typically considered a pioneer or leader when it comes to adopting newer technologies. While it has the most number of IT professionals in the world, it is a laggard in adopting innovation.
By harnessing the power of supercomputing, there is an opportunity to reverse this trend. India has reached a stage where it has the will and wherewithal to provide better lives to its citizens. It wants to enhance the impact of its welfare programmes by formulating the right schemes for the right beneficiaries in the right parts of the country. It wants to improve its prediction of cyclones and droughts and better plan infrastructure for its fast-expanding cities.
To realise these goals, India can no longer afford to ignore supercomputers. It needs the capacity to solve complex scientific problems which have real-life implications. It needs its workforce to have the skills to participate and lead in new innovations across various academic and industrial sectors.
To do all of this a country needs the appropriate infrastructure—digital as well as physical. Case in point: China’s Jiangsu.
In the province, the supercomputer “Sunway TaihuLight” performs a range of tasks, including climate science, weather forecasting, and earth-system modelling to help ships avoid rough seas, farmers improve their yield and ensure the safety of offshore drilling. TaihuLight has already led to an increase in profits and a reduction in expenses that justify its $270 million cost.
In the US, too, supercomputers are radically transforming the healthcare system. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has used supercomputers to create a far more detailed model of the Hepatitis-C virus, a major cause of liver disease that costs $9 billion in healthcare costs in the US alone.
Using supercomputers, the researchers have now developed a model that comprehensively simulates the human heart down to the cellular level and could lead to a substantial reduction in heart diseases, which costs the US around $200 billion each year.
On Aug. 14, 2017, the SpaceX CRS-12 rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center to send Dragon Spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab. Aboard the Dragon was a Hewlett Packard enterprises (HPE) supercomputer, called the Spaceborne, which is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a supercomputer system in space.
The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year—roughly the amount of time it would take to travel to Mars.
If India truly wants to become a knowledge-driven, multi-trillion-dollar economy, which is able to support cutting-edge science to benefit its economy, its society and the businesses that operate within it environment, investment in supercomputing is a necessity.
Without it, India risks being surpassed on the global stage by other nations and will consequently miss the huge benefits that come from having this vitally important technology at the disposal of India’s best and brightest minds. The Modi government has big ambitions for India and supercomputing can help make them a reality.